University researchers stress independence

Recent reports have linked university professors, including Canadians, with writing pro-GMO papers for Monsanto

Don Flaten isn’t afraid to voice his opinion.

The University of Manitoba soil scientist, who regularly speaks at farm shows on nutrient management and fertilizers, publicly criticizes farm practices he thinks are irresponsible and takes aim at public policies that make little sense.

He participates in the public arena because it’s a critical piece of the job description for an independent scientist.

Don Flaten says he has never had a problem speaking his mind as a university researcher. | file photo
Don Flaten says he has never had a problem speaking his mind as a university researcher. | file photo

“When we’re wearing our academic hats, we need to provide information and opinions that are as balanced and science-based as possible, even when those perspectives antagonize some other people,” he said.

“That’s the only way to retain our credibility and to help society in the long term.”

In September, a New York Times article suggested a number of agricultural scientists weren’t providing independent information on genetically modified food. Emails between Monsanto and the scientists, such as Kevin Folta of the University of Florida, indicated that researchers were collaborating with the company and accepting grants for publicly defending GM technology.

Peter Phillips, graduate chair of the University of Saskatchewan’s Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, was also caught up in the controversy.

As reported in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Monsanto executives asked Phillips and other academics to write articles supporting GM foods.

Phillips said he did nothing wrong because he wasn’t paid for the outreach work.

Flaten said collaborating with industry and government representatives is a normal part of academia, and disclosing every single relationship isn’t realistic.

“Yes, if asked, we should be open about who we work with, (but) I don’t think that academics should be diverting large amounts of time to initiating disclosure of all of our relationships with everyone that we have contact with,” said Flaten, who has opposed the Manitoba government’s position on hog barns.

The province has blamed hogs for the excessive amount of nutrients flowing into Lake Winnipeg and imposed severe regulations on the hog industry.

Some agricultural scientists in Canada have grown weary of accusations of bias and industry influence. Several have said off the record that they no longer do media interviews or make public appearances on controversial topics such as neonicotinoids because they’re sick of the backlash.

Critics of GM food and pesticides often say that industry-funded research cannot be trusted. They claim corporations influence the results and communication of the findings.

Flaten said industry reps have never muzzled his public comments.

“I have not experienced any significant pressure, let alone control, from industry or government funding sources over how my research or professional opinions are communicated … even though my perspectives have made them uncomfortable at times.”

Flaten said one assumption about ag research, that government is less controlling than industry, isn’t correct.

“Public agencies are sometimes just as challenging to work with as private companies.”

For example, the Growing Forward 2 program in Manitoba, which is a federal-provincial initiative, restricts communication about its funded projects.

“There is a standard clause that says, ‘the project recipient must notify Manitoba and obtain written approval in advance of any and all communications, publications, advertising and news releases referring to the project,’ ” Flaten said.

“Fortunately, I have not had that clause enforced for any of my work, yet.”

Flaten said he hasn’t heard of a case where the province acted on the clause, partly because commodity groups facilitate and co-ordinate Growing Forward 2 research projects.

“The producer groups that I work with have not passed this restriction onto us at the university,” he said.

“In fact, the producer groups that I work with have been very supportive of any efforts to share information from our research.”

Manitoba’s deputy minister of agriculture didn’t respond to questions about the communication clause by press time.

SaskCanola executive director Janice Tranberg said she’s never heard of such a clause for Growing Forward 2 projects in Saskatchewan.

“We went through it and no we don’t,” she said.

“We have encouraged our researchers to communicate their findings.”

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