Public Research, Private Gain
Since their creation in 1862, land-grant universities have revolutionized American agriculture. These public institutions delivered better seeds, new plant varieties and advanced tools to farmers who deployed scientific breakthroughs to increase agricultural productivity. They pioneered vitally important research on environmental stewardship, such as soil conservation. Land-grant universities partnered with farmers in research efforts, advancing rural livelihoods and improving the safety and abundance of food for consumers.
These innovations were spurred almost entirely with public investments from state and federal governments. Starting in the 1980s, however, federal policies including the Bayh-Dole Act of 1982 began encouraging land-grant schools to partner with the private sector on agricultural research. A key goal was to develop agricultural products such as seeds, which were sold to farmers under an increasingly aggressive patent regime.
By 2010, private donations provided nearly a quarter of the funding for agricultural research at land-grant universities. This funding steers land-grant research toward the goals of industry. It also discourages independent research that might be critical of the industrial model of agriculture and diverts public research capacity away from important issues such as rural economies, environmental quality and the public health implications of agriculture.
Private-sector funding not only corrupts the public research mission of land-grant universities, but also distorts the science that is supposed to help farmers improve their practices and livelihoods. Industry-funded academic research routinely produces favorable results for industry sponsors. Because policymakers and regulators frequently voice their need for good science in decision-making, industry-funded academic research influences the rules that govern their business operations.
Congress should restore the public agricultural research mission at land-grant schools. The Farm Bill can reinvigorate investment in agricultural research and fund research projects that promote the public interest. Reprioritizing research at land-grant universities may not remedy all of the problems in the food system, but it could play a vital role in developing the science and solutions needed to create a viable alternative to our industrialized, consolidated food system.