Buying The Ivory Tower

Are your fruit trees university graduates? Probably many of them are. You might not realize it, but many of the fruits and vegetables that you grow in your yard or buy at farmers’ markets are the products of generations of plant breeding experiments conducted by such giants as the University of California, Rutgers, and Cornell University.

But the shift toward private funding of university research and the skewing of research priorities toward corporate projects with large potential rewards are threatening what many universities used to feel was their mandate: breed better food and fruit crops, varieties useful in market farms and the public’s own “back forty.” Experiments in genetically engineered crops and pesticides get the funding while research stations that focus on products consumers and small farmers can use languish or close up shop.

The cutbacks are dramatic in state-funded research. “Throughout the country, there have been huge cutbacks to the states, and the states have had to reduce or totally cut their funding for university research. So when [agriculture and horticulture] professors retire, they usually aren’t replaced, and their assistants get reassigned to other projects,” says Sam Benowitz, owner of Raintree Nursery (www.raintreenursery) in Morton, Washington. “This really hurts efforts to develop special varieties that are naturally disease-resistant or that do well in unusual climates.”

In an age where sustainability is of heightened concern, the emphasis on research geared to commercial interests is hampering the “grow local” movement, which emphasizes the importance of growing food near where it’s consumed—a step many environmentalists feel is important in reducing environmental damage and encouraging community-based agriculture. Case in point: Cornell’s Geneva Research Station, which this year celebrated its 100th anniversary, has announced that it doesn’t have the money to replace retiring plant breeder Robert L. Anderson, who is responsible for at least 17 plant introductions. Over the last century, researchers at Geneva have introduced more than 245 varieties of apples, grapes, berries, and stone fruits.

“In the Geneva New York state research station, they were doing research in growing stone fruits [fruit with pits, such as cherries] in cooler places where they don’t usually grow as well,” says Benowitz. Commercial orchardists will still be able to grow their crops in prime, concentrated locations, the way almond growers do in California’s Central Valley. “But home growers and small growers won’t get the varieties they need to grow locally, close to consumers,” Benowitz says.

Benowitz, who has gone on plant discovery trips to such places as the former Soviet republics in a search for disease-resistant fruit varieties that will do well in the Pacific Northwest, is now at the forefront of efforts led by the Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation ( and others to collect money to save endangered fruit-breeding programs from western Washington to Geneva, New York. “It all has to do with how much money and grants you can find, and finding a big enough industry to support you is often the only way you can survive,” he says. Trendy types of research still get some funding, but less popular ones are plowed under because there are no funds to maintain them.

A dramatic change in a generation

Benowitz concedes that commercialism, rather than pure scientific research, has long been a driving force in plant breeding, going back to the earliest days of land-grant universities, many of which were funded primarily to support the driving interest of young America: agriculture.

“It has always been true that the most attractive commercial crops got most of the money, but there used to be money for other things,” he says. “Someone would have funding for a big project, but alongside they might have a few small experimental growing plots.” Often those big projects helped the smaller ones survive; professors could work on several programs at once. But now, with budgets cut to the bone, the bigger projects already run lean.

Fads also affect funding: these days, interest in apples and viticulture is paramount—look at the high-end backyards of the nouveau riche of Sonoma and Napa. “It seems like the only things that are being funded these days are wine grape and cider apple varieties,” bemoans Dewey Schurman of the Western Washington Fruit Research Foundation.

A few years from now, another trend will emerge, and funding will shift again. Longtime amateur grape grower Todd Kennedy remembers with horror hastily organized salvage parties, where volunteers worked for hours to save clippings from plots of grapes being removed from California’s agricultural research stations. “Sometimes, we barely beat the chainsaws,” he recounts. “And when these varieties are gone, it’s forever, if we don’t have another source.”

Benowitz and other growers are so passionate that they’ve banded together to fund recently cut research at Washington State University. So far, they’ve raised about $20,000 from individuals and small businesses to keep fruit research going.

The irony, says Benowitz, is that taxpayers pay for the research but don’t get a return in knowledge and products that could help their communities “The small commercial growers and the backyard gardeners are the ones that really suffer directly,” he says. “Whatever we can do to make farming profitable preserves open space for everyone, even non-gardeners. These programs—such as research into growing kiwis as a supplemental crop—were helping to make small farms profitable.”

Meanwhile, Cornell touts mega-deals such as the development of the “gene gun,” a gene delivery device developed with private funding and then licensed to DuPont for what Cornell brags was the largest sum ever for such an agreement. Patent hunting by cash-strapped universities has become big business, detracting from their primary tasks of teaching and serving the public as a resource for information and research.

Increasingly, privately funded research focuses on products that enable sponsoring companies to cash in quickly on new discoveries. “This is really a comparatively new phenomenon that acts as a detriment to society,” says Adil Shamoo, a founder of Citizens for Responsible Care and Research and co-author of the book The Responsible Conduct of Research. “As recently as 20 years ago, universities such as Princeton and Harvard refused money from industry. Now, they’re contemplating even larger facilities to do research for private companies.”

Basic research proposals are often altered to fit the aims of the private firms. “So if you want to do basic research in medicine or biology, you might dress it up as cancer or HIV drug research,” says David Resnik, Shamoo’s co-author and a bioethicist at the National Institute of Health who studied the university-industry connection while at East Carolina University.

And, say Shamoo and Resnik, private industry is not the only culprit. Government, too, is now focusing more on short-term, potentially licensable technology, especially now that government leadership favors licensing arrangements with private industry. “The funders determine the projects’ directions,” says Shamoo.

Observers say they don’t expect research priorities to change much. Some schools have experimented with conflict-of-interest committees designed to lessen conflicts, but as Resnik puts it, “I don’t think those committees have been good at dealing with institutional conflicts. They’re just not independent, and you need independence to deal with conflicts.”

Unfortunately, until independence from government and private industry again becomes a rule of thumb, researchers at universities will spend more time shaking the money tree than they will creating trees for the rest of us.

Lisa Stapleton is a past chairperson and amateur member of the Silicon Valley chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers.

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