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August 28th, 2014

Is Cornell the Go-To University for Industry Science?

By Tim Schwab

GMO_CanolaCornell University announced last week that it is embarking on a multi-million dollar campaign to “depolarize the charged debate” around GMOs. Can you guess who’s behind this effort? The biotech industry and its supporters.

The website for this project, the Cornell Alliance for Science, is pretty sparse, but it does note its pro-GMO partners, including the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), which is funded by Monsanto, CropLife and Bayer.

This use of surrogates is par for the course with the biotech industry. Sometimes called the soft lobby, corporations routinely engage neutral-appearing scientists and impartial-sounding front groups to help advance their political and economic agendas. Food & Water Watch detailed the enormous amount of industry research coming out of our public land-grant universities in our 2012 report, Public Research, Private Gain.

Cornell is no stranger to this science-for-sale approach. Earlier this year, Cornell economist William Lesser took money from a biotech front group to produce a questionable analysis showing that GMO labeling will be very costly for consumers. While he noted that the study reflected his personal opinions, not those of Cornell, GMO supporters began publicizing the findings of “the Cornell study” in their campaign to defeat state-labeling initiatives around the country. Independent studies, meanwhile, show that GMO labeling will not increase costs significantly—and perhaps not at all.

Cornell’s newest foray into the GMO debate, the “Alliance for Science,” will add to the confusion and distortion in the public discourse around GMOs. Rather than trying to promote a civil, honest, impartial dialogue about GMOs—as you would expect from a university like Cornell—the school has chosen to partner with some of the biotechnology industry’s most prominent supporters and defenders.

Incredibly, the Cornell Alliance strenuously asserts its impartiality, calling it a “radical collaboration” of proponents and opponents of GMOs dedicated to “promot[ing] equitable access to safe, nutritious, and sustainably produced food.” Though that quote sounds an awful lot like Food & Water Watch’s mission statement, it isn’t, and we won’t be joining the alliance’s “radical collaboration.”

The role of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in this effort should also be mentioned. Gates has awarded $5.6 million toward the Cornell Alliance, a mere drop in the ocean of the group’s pro-GMO “philanthropy.” The Foundation has tapped big names from the biotechnology industry to run its multi-billion-dollar agricultural development program, and, as Food & Water Watch showed in our report Biotech Ambassadors, Gates partners with biotech companies to develop GMOs for Africa—that African countries clearly do not want or need. The Gates Foundation has also invested tens of millions of dollars of its money into corporate agribusiness and biotech companies like Monsanto and Cargill.

At a time when the United States is clearly ready for a frank conversation about GMOs, evident in the state-level labeling ballot initiatives underway across the country, it is unfortunate that our most prominent philanthropists and universities would partner with industry to distort the public discourse. There is a vibrant scientific and public debate about the safety and necessity of GMOs in our food system that deserves a bigger public platform—sort of like what Gates and Cornell are trying to do, but without the obvious bias.

2 Comments on Is Cornell the Go-To University for Industry Science?

  1. margaret barttley says:

    It will be interesting to see how Cornell uses that money. Maybe on pollsters? On making movies? On buying ads? Sponsoring conferences?

    • This revives questions about the shifty handling of the evidence used to scapegoat the protein-boosting additive melamine in the 2007 pet food disaster. This was accomplished at Guelph University in the Canadian homebase and at….Cornell.
      Tip of the research iceberg.

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