Digging Deeper


Failing to ask the right question on ag research

I always get a big laugh when I tell people that I got my start in journalism at livestock shows.

Funny, but it’s true. One of my first jobs out of college was working for the Extension Service at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, doing radio and TV reports focused on the research coming out of the ag college.

So maybe I have a different perspective on the state of research at public schools today. But no matter how you look at it, I think it’s pretty interesting that big business is paying for more and more of the studies that benefit its products.

As my part of our series “America’s Big Beef,” I investigated how beef research is funded at land grant institutions in the top five beef-producing states: Texas A&M, Kansas State, Nebraska, Iowa State and Colorado State. My findings can be found here – in audio or text form.

This isn’t breaking news for the academics who have been dealing with it for years. Yet I thought it was a story that’s gone untold in the mainstream press and that perhaps people might be interested who attended those schools or who are scientists or who just care about what they eat.

One of the more compelling interviews I did for my story was with Chuck Hassebrook, a member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents and executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs.

Hassebrook isn’t critical of corporate funding of ag research. Mostly, he just doesn’t like the current priorities that take the focus off the rural economy.  He also said something that was really fascinating to me: that the big ag schools – mostly lauded for helping to build the U.S. into an ag superpower – can now also be blamed for the state of industrialized agriculture.

“By and large, the technology we’ve created in agriculture has depleted family farming and it’s really led to the demise of many communities,” he said. “I’m suggesting we should look at new ways to go forward. New ways to go forward that strengthen our mid-sized family farms."

The ag schools have lost their social mission, Hassebrook said, the one that calls on them to work for the good of all people.

“The key question is: Are we building the kind of economy that serves our people, that creates genuine opportunity for ordinary people and the future of their communities? And if the research does that, then doing it in conjunction with industry is probably a good thing because it makes it more effective. But we’ve failed to ask that question and that’s the problem.”

So now you know what I think is interesting. I want to hear what you think. What did you think of our series “America’s Big Beef?” Was it fair? Did we miss anything? Talk to the Harvest Network by clicking here.