In a windowless conference room, epidemiologist Steve Wing was frantically blacking out chunks of his own research.
Wing had been working on a study looking into the impacts of industrial-scale hog operations on health for the University of North Carolina. But the state’s Pork Council had caught wind of the research, and filed a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA) to gain access to his findings. “They went after Steve, asking him to turn over any documentation. They went directly to the university and got the lawyers to try and make him hand it over,” says Naeema Muhammad, one of Wing’s community partners.
Wing had promised the community members who had spoken to him that he’d protect their privacy. Revealing even a few basic details could have compromised their identities. “Because … if their occupation was a nurse, they lived in a household with three other people, they were age 35-39 … there’s only one person like that in a rural area,” Wing said in a 2015 interview.
Wing’s lawyer negotiated heavy redactions in response to the FOIA request. “We did give over the records, and I actually to this day remain regretful that I didn’t resist more,” Wing said in the 2015 interview. In November of 2016 Wing died. “He went to his deathbed with them still harassing him to turn over his information,” says Muhammad.
Work like Wing’s is exactly the kind research institutions are meant to carry out. And academia writ large is supposed to be independent. Scientists at public universities work for the taxpayers. Their research is supposed to advance the public interest.
But over the past 30 years, as public funding for university research has dried up, private industry money has poured in. And with industry dollars comes industry priorities. Agribusiness has funded research that has advanced its interests and suppressed research that undermines its ability to chase unfettered growth. The levers of power at play can seem anecdotal—a late-night phone call here, a missed professional opportunity there. But interviews with researchers across the U.S. revealed stories of industry pressure on individuals, university deans, and state legislatures to follow an agenda that prioritizes business over human health and the environment.
Take Iowa, a state that is, in both identity and capacity, American farm country. According to data released by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in October of 2018, the state produces more commodity corn and hogs—and in many years, soybeans—than any other U.S. state. In Iowa, pigs outnumber people by nearly eight to one.
So who’s pulling the strings? Take, for example, the looming presence of the Iowa Farm Bureau—100 years old, with more than 150,000 members, and sitting on $1.4 billion in total assets, having taken in nearly $88 million in revenue in 2015 alone. While the public can’t see the specifics of private-sector funding for universities, we do know that the Iowa Farm Bureau has contributed more than $3 million to Iowa State University over the past 30 years.
Other industry-specific lobbies—the Iowa Pork Council and other commodity groups—also contribute directly to universities. The Pork Council, for instance, provides scholarship opportunities to Iowa State University students majoring in agriculture-related fields. Additionally, it contributed $200,000 directly to the university, according to tax filings from 2016.
And then there are the politically influential businessmen Charles and David Koch, intensely pro-free market billionaires who line the coffers of far-right politicians, and who owe their immense fortunes in part to manufacturing fertilizer. In 2017, the Koch Foundation announced a donation of nearly $1.7 million to Iowa State University for an economics program.
That makes the agribusiness industry a powerful special interest in Iowa’s universities.
Of course, this money has helped to create world-class courses and opportunities for many students and academics. Nevertheless, some would argue that it has also created an atmosphere in which research that is not directly helpful to the industry can appear to bite the hand that fed it.
In 2017, for example, after 30 years of research into alternative methods of agriculture, the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State was deprived of funds in the state budget in a bill signed off on by former governor Terry Branstad (whose own campaign received $88,000 from the Iowa Farm Bureau, coincidentally). It left the institution alive in name only.
Or back a little further, when Jim Merchant, former dean of the University of Iowa College of Public Health, retired, he planned to continue analyzing an existing data set, the Keokuk County Rural Health Study. (Professors are often allowed to conduct research after they retire.) He’d already published work using the same data set to link industrial-scale hog farms with asthma rates in local children. Still, he thought there were more insights to be gleaned from the information that had been collected.
Money wasn’t a problem. Merchant had secured funding to carry out his work. Yet, he says, the administration of the School of Public Health stalled the project in 2014. He was told he couldn’t do research as an emeritus professor, even though it had been permitted in the past.
Then-governor of Iowa Tom Vilsack had asked them to collaborate on a study of CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operations) impact on air quality. The researchers submitted a 221-page response. At the time, Merchant says the collaborators had reached a consensus on the executive summary. “We agreed on every word,” he says.
David Osterberg, professor emeritus in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa, and a fellow member of the study group, remembers it the same way. “After the report came out—immediately afterwards—the Farm Bureau demanded that Iowa State professors come to their headquarters to get beat up,” he says. “It was like, the next morning: ‘You be here tomorrow.’ They were livid.”
Shortly after, the public distancing started. A story in National Hog Farmer, an industry-backed publication, quoted several anonymous sources who undermined Merchant’s claim of academic consensus. Then, at a meeting with state legislators, Wendy Wintersteen, the current university president who was then associate dean of the College of Agriculture at Iowa State, said the university was backing away from the report. She declined to comment for this story.
“This is individual work of 12 Iowa State faculty members—not a report of Iowa State University—the work of 12 faculty members, of their individual research,” Merchant says, still indignant years later.
But as he got deeper into the work, Martin says he noticed that researchers were afraid to be associated with it. “We were approached every time we went near a land-grant school—Iowa State, NC State, University of Arkansas. Professors would pull us aside and say they’re under enormous pressure when they get industry funding to kind of cater their research to that.”
Martin estimates that about half a dozen contributing researchers asked for their names to be withheld from the list of authors in the final draft for fear of retribution.
A number of researchers we spoke to across the country echoed similar concerns. Their experiences range from seeing their published work undermined in industry magazines, to being discouraged from conducting certain research, feeling undermined by their own deans, and one person was even driven out of the field entirely. Another researcher, who agreed to testify in a lawsuit that threatened to hold industry accountable for pollution, saw his position eliminated just before the court battle began. As soon as the plaintiffs lost, he was re-hired.
Of course, it’s not all fear and loathing in academia. Marty Strange, who teaches agriculture history and policy at Green Mountain College in Vermont, says the industry offers tantalizing incentives, too. Industry-backed groups host conferences, pay high speaker fees, and hire academics for lucrative consulting jobs. “Any time you have people who work in the public trust who can freelance and get private-sector money for doing private-sector things, you’re going to get intellectual corruption,” says Strange.
And for a university administrator, balancing industry priorities and academic freedom may be more complex than it appears. Incentive structures for school leaders in agriculture states are entirely different from those for independent researchers. Administrators’ success is measured in part by the money they bring in, and the Pew Commission found that they’ve been forced to rely more on industry money to keep their institutions afloat.
But the change hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2013, former Iowa senator Tom Harkin revoked plans to donate his papers from 40 years in the House and Senate to a namesake public policy institute at Iowa State, his alma mater. As Politico reported at the time, Harkin’s reason was startling: “He said he was backing out after it became clear he could not trust university leaders to allow unrestricted academic freedom at the institute.”
Academic freedom appears increasingly conditional. But that’s not the premise on which public research universities were founded. They are supposed to prioritize the public interest. Arguably, ag-friendly universities have left that behind in favor of research that benefits their agribusiness benefactors. And for researchers in certain fields, life can be made easier by just sticking to the script.
“If you wish to get ahead in academia—particularly in a land-grant university, and we saw this again and again through our Pew Report—Big Ag has a stranglehold over land grant universities,” says Jim Merchant, the former dean of Iowa University’s School of Public Health who was barred from completing his funded research as an emeritus professor.
Ultimately, he says, “agribusiness has tremendous influence on their research … as a result of that, the administrators and the faculty at these land-grant universities are heavily influenced, if not beholden, to agricultural interests.”