Friday, 22 October 2010

The Costly Affair of US Agricultural Research


I came across the news today that Dr Milo Shult has been appointed to the US National Agricultural Advisory Board, otherwise known as the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education and Economics (NAREEE) Advisory Board. He is Vice President for Agriculture at the University of Arkansas's Division of Agriculture (the University). The University’s goal is to develop, study, evaluate and extend current and emerging technologies including biological and agricultural engineering. Given the cost of technological research in agriculture, I was wondering if there was a connection between American transnational corporations in the agri-food business and the University. It is not immediately apparent, but nonetheless it is there.

The first information on funding I found was that the Division funding sources for 2007 included • State Appropriations 56.3% • Federal Appropriations 14.1% • County Appropriations 2.4% • Federal Grants and Contracts 10.1% • State Grants and Contracts 1.9% • Private Grants and Contracts 7.5% • Sales 5.5% • Other 2.2%. This would give the reader the idea that the agricultural research at the Lafayette campus is primarily funded by government which the taxpayer would be paying for. However, when I dug further, I came up with the somewhat contradictory information that this campus has an endowment of $939,800,000.

One million dollars or $1,000,000, is a lot of money and the endowment at Lafayette is nearly one billion ($1,000,000,000). If a person worked for 50 years and had an average wage of $20,000 it would amount to $1,000,000. Although the US government's first quarter figures show the average wage in 2010 to be around $46,000 per annum, this figure includes those who make millions a year (e.g., “In 2005, the typical CEO received $11.6 million in total direct compensation-salaries...”). Also, a lifetime of work has to incorporate inflation and unemployment periods. Considering that the Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour which amounts to about $15,000 per annum full-time and that many people work part-time (9.5 million involuntarily part-time), are unemployed (14.8 million in 2010, incapacitated due to health problems (2.9 million veterans in 2009 unable to work due to disabilities), in prison or jail (2.2 million in 2006), or housewives (5.3 million ‘stay at home mothers’), a $1,000,000 income in a lifetime is still a fair bit of money for most of us.  At any rate, the University is spending millions every year on research that many believe is detrimental to our future as a living species on earth.

As I was unable to readily find any information about the endowment, I took a stab at connections with Monsanto. Although I did not find anything specifically related to donations of cash, I did find some interesting connections. For instance in April this year, Bumpers College and the Division of Agriculture at the University hosted a Monsanto exhibit with information on careers for graduates.  And in the Fall, Monsanto was on campus for students who are interested in internships and co-ops in Engineering, Finance, Information Technology, Research, Sales, Seed Production and Supply Chain, and entry-level positions in Information Technology, Research, Sales and Seed Production.  In addition, Monsanto sponsors a scholarship program for 10 African-American juniors or seniors majoring in targeted agriculture related science, engineering and technology majors. It is called the Monsanto Fund/UNCF 1890’s Program and is provided to the nineteen 1890 Historically Black Land-Grant Institutions with the University being one of them.

In 2006, Monsanto donated a soybean seed collection to the University. “The breeding lines were developed using conventional crossbreeding methods used by plant breeders ... to supply the Japanese fermented soybean food market....” According to Floyd Hancock, Monsanto soybean breeding manager, Monsanto has invested heavily in research and development over the past decade to bring new technologies to Arkansas' soybean farmers. He further states that this donation will allow this research to continue. Since 93% of soybean production in the US this year is genetically modified and because of the Monsanto representative’s statements, it would appear that these seeds will be used to produce new forms of genetically modified seed, and I’m sure Monsanto has some way of protecting its interests.

Even without getting specific details of donations from biotech corporations to the University, by the very nature of the research work undertaken there, it is reasonable to conclude that there is a viable working relationship. Given the nature of the research conducted at the University and the facts cited above, it is questionable just how independent Dr Shult’s advice will be to the US Department of Agriculture.