By Tim Schwab
As this series of blogs in recent weeks has shown, cooperative extension has come a long way since its founding in 1914, when county agents diligently reached out to farmers to address their needs and offer impartial advice on best practices. On its centennial anniversary, extension appears to avoid addressing some of agriculture’s most pressing needs, especially the economic challenges farmers face from intense corporate concentration. Elsewhere, cooperative extension acts as an advocate for the biotechnology industry, offering farmers and consumers biased materials and information about the so-called benefits and necessity of GMOs.
Today’s piece considers the explicit ways that extension, which is facing eroding federal support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is reaching out to industry as an active partner and funder of its activities, resulting in projects that aren’t clearly in the public interest. Some of the most egregious examples come from industry support for extension programs about consumer nutrition. Recent highlights include:
- Junk-food company Coca-Cola pledging $3.8 million to support a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension program to address childhood obesity.
- Cornell University’s extension hosting cooking workshops in the Cargill Teaching Kitchen, donated by Cargill Inc., which also funds nutritional programs from Cornell extension.
The corporate influence also extends to extension programs designed for farmers:
- A year after Monsanto opened its Water Utilization Learning Center in Gothenburg, Nebraska in 2009, the University of Nebraska opened its Water for Food Institute, whose major annual conference is sponsored by Monsanto. Noting Nebraska’s supportive extension program, Monsanto trumpeted its own “extension-type efforts,” noting, “Extension is essentially teaching and that is what we do in Gothenburg.”
- As land-grant universities hire undercover detectives and litigate farmers for seed saving, often seed varieties developed with farmer and taxpayer dollars, Texas A&M’s extension uses its public relations office to warn farmers about the penalties for violating seed patents.
- The CEO of Tyson Foods donated $3.2 million to endow a professorship at the University of Tennessee that will work on international programs through extension “to find solutions to encourage less-equipped societies to maximize available resources in an effort to provide better nutrition for all of Earth’s inhabitants.”
- This year, Texas A&M partnered with Pioneer/DuPont to hold a “crop production clinic.”
These examples illustrate the financial ties between industry and extension that could compromise extension’s ability to carry out its role as an impartial source of information and advice to farmers and consumers. Indeed, as this series of blogs has shown, on the most pressing topics of modern agriculture, extension is too often absent or advocating industry positions—and not standing up for farmers and consumers.
On the 100-year anniversary of extension, which follows the 150-year anniversary of our land-grant university system, it’s time that we take a good, hard look at the priorities and mission of our public agriculture infrastructure. Do these public institutions fulfill the role and mission that Congress intended? Do they still serve the public first and foremost?