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April 23rd, 2014

A Shocking, Alternate Universe of “Special Interest” Science

By Tim Schwab

stack of one hundred dollar billsLast week I noticed a bizarre publication in the Journal of Animal Science, whose editors and sponsors include representatives from Merck, Pioneer and ADM: an article about the need for scientists to assert themselves in the public debate on the rules and policies surrounding animal agriculture.

The article, derived from a presentation made at a Monsanto-funded symposium, asserts that “special-interest groups” (quickly identified as “food activists” and environmental groups), routinely misrepresent science to advance a political agenda on issues like the environment, animal welfare and use of animal drugs.   

However, the authors fail to address the most obvious, most powerful “special interest” in animal science: industry. Industry funds hundreds of millions of dollars of agricultural research, including millions of dollars given to animal science departments at public land-grant universities, where several of the authors work. This money can influence the direction and outcome of research.

This omission isn’t terribly surprising, given that the authors of the new study include Dr. Jude Capper, whose research routinely helps advance the economic and political agendas of the industry groups that support her work. One Capper study, funded by an animal-health industry group, purports to demonstrate the environmental benefits of industrial beef production through use of dangerous growth-promoting drugs like Zilmax (which was later withdrawn from the market following reports of major animal health problems). Another study Capper co-authored with Monsanto determined that use of Monsanto’s rBGH, a controversial growth hormone, presents environmental benefits to dairies. Several of Capper’s industry studies are cited as evidence that sound science contradicts environmental groups’ “flawed” analyses of the environmental impact of industrial agriculture.

At every turn, the 15-page article strays deeper and deeper into an alternate universe, where the authors correctly diagnose a problem – special interest groups manipulating science to advance an agenda – but incorrectly identify the perpetrators. They appear to invent a mythical landscape where extremely powerful environmental groups and food activists bulldoze public policy and media debates with bogus science. They preach about the role of scientists as “honest brokers of truth” who must remain committed to “objectivity,” “transparency,” and challenging “conflicts of interests,” but,with no apparent sense of contradiction, present industry studies supporting industry positions as evidence that public-interest groups are distorting public policy debates with agenda-driven research.

The authors repeatedly invent non-existent debates around controversial scientific topics, parroting the corporate spin historically used to confuse the media and the public on topics like the health effects of smoking. For example, when attacking environmental groups working on the role of industrial agriculture in climate change, the authors state that there is “considerable debate” over whether climate change is caused by human activity. In reality, there is a clear, international consensus, backed by 97 percent of climate-change scientists, that climate change is real and very likely caused by human activity. (“Very likely” means greater than 90 percent probability of occurrence.)

On the subject of whether and to what extent widespread use of antibiotics as growth-promoters in animal agriculture is having an impact on public health, the authors assert that this topic is “vigorously debated.” They don’t mention that the debate is between the veterinary medicine industry and the scientific community working on public health. For decades, scientists have identified the use of antibiotics as livestock growth-promoters as a public health problem, as it creates antibiotic-resistant bacteria that make infections harder to treat. Even the CDC and FDA recently agreed on this point. But the authors cite a contrary point of view from the American Veterinary Medical Association, failing to mention that this high-power trade group has spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress, including on many industry causes like favorable legislation to allow continued, widespread antibiotic usage.

Unlike the consumer and environmental groups that the Capper article vilifies, corporations and industry groups have the power, the money and the demonstrated will to bully, intimidate, censor and attack science and scientists they don’t agree with. They also use their deep coffers to overwhelm our public universities with donations, endowed faculty positions, research funding and lucrative consulting gigs for professors. Using the stick and the carrot, industry has created a powerful system of incentives and disincentives that has long helped cultivate favorable academic research and academic shills to advance corporate agendas that mislead consumers in fields like tobacco, pharmaceutical and agricultural research

The rare scientists who dare to openly challenge industry practices or products find their personal lives and professional careers subject to aggressive attacks and public relations campaigns, their tenure challenged, their research access and funding limited or their articles retracted. In one case, dozens of scientists, fearful of retaliation from corporate agribusiness, anonymously complained to the EPA that industry restricts and limits independent research, creating a scenario where industry can potentially “launder the data.” If that’s not misuse of science, I don’t know what is. 

For more on this topic, check out Food & Water Watch’s report on the outsized role that corporate money plays in agricultural science, Public Research, Private Gain.

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