Last weekend’s Washington Post featured a front-page article about the mounting allegations of scientific censorship at the USDA, often to appease politically powerful agricultural companies like Monsanto.
You heard that right: when independent, government scientists produce research that threatens corporate agribusinesses, the USDA—according to at least 10 government scientists—censors the results, waters down the findings and punishes the researchers.
The poster boy of this complaint is USDA scientist Jonathon Lundgren whose scientific work showing the problems with the industrial model of agriculture, including the expanding use of pesticides with GMO production, is threatening the bottom lines of private companies selling these products, like Monsanto.
And a problem for Monsanto is a problem for the USDA.
That’s because the line between corporate agribusiness and the USDA is extremely thin. The biotechnology industry pours hundreds of millions of dollars into politics, including campaign contributions and lobbying. This influences who we elect to make laws—and who these elected leaders appoint to important policy positions, like USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a vocal supporter of GMOs. Or consider Roger Beachy, a leading GMO advocate with Monsanto ties, who, until recently, headed up USDA’s main research funding arm.
In this climate, the allegations that scientists are having difficulty pursuing research that might challenge corporate agribusiness are hardly surprising. Dr. Lundgren’s notes that he was disciplined by the USDA, among other reasons, for giving a presentation at the National Academy of Sciences but not submitting proper paperwork. As the Washington Post notes, when other researchers commit the same bureaucratic sins, they are not disciplined.
In a video of Lundgren’s presentation, he discusses Bt crops, which are GMOs engineered to contain an insecticide, which the industry loudly claims is supposed to limit the scope of insecticide use. Lundgren and a few other brave scientists are doing the unthinkable—actually conducting independent investigations into the science and publishing their results. They show that with the widespread use of GMO corn, many parts of the country have seen more acres treated with insecticides, not fewer—including a highly toxic class of insecticides called neonicitinoids, widely attributed to serious environmental safety issues, including declines in bee populations.
This model of agriculture—vast monoculture acres of GMO corn treated with insecticides—is broken, Lundgren all but said at the National Academy: “The question should not be can we raise crops without the need of insecticides. The question should be what’s going to happen if we don’t?”
He went on to describe four veteran commodity farmers who have abandoned insecticides and, in one case, synthetic fertilizer, replacing these expensive inputs by planting cover crops, rotating crops, increasing biodiversity and reducing plot sizes. These measures improve production, including yield.
These farmers’ practices pose a major threat to corporate agribusinesses, which depend on farmers purchasing expensive GMO seeds, fertilizers and pesticides each year. And that appears to be Lundgren’s cardinal sin, advocating for a common-sense model of agriculture that threatens the bottom lines of companies like Monsanto.
USDA’s position that Dr. Lundgren is a renegade researcher might be more credible if he were the lone whistleblower. But he’s not. Nine other USDA researchers have made similar complaints. And, according to the inspector general of the USDA, a “significant volume” of new claims have been pouring in to her office’s hotline.