Celebrating the Public-Private Partnership in Agriculture

David Stern

September 30, 2015

Recent media conversations, including a New York Times article, “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show” (September 7), seem to impugn the relationships between academia and industry, where invention and production of our food supply is concerned. But how often is it that consumers purchase their food or medicine from a university? They instead purchase education often that of their children with the well-placed belief that the atmosphere of discovery inherent in academia will ultimately produce advances in society.

Imagine a country without public-private partnerships, where the private sector relied on its own confidential research, and knowledge in the public sector was not actively transferred to organizations with the means to implement the most applicable findings. Amidst the emotionally-charged debate about our life-sustaining food supply, we should realize that companies large and small harvest the fundamental knowledge accrued mainly through taxpayer-funded research, then use their well-honed pipelines to bring products to market. This is true whether the application is corn for ethanol, organic carrots or anything in between. In short, coordination between public and private sectors is essential to the maturation of new ideas.

In agriculture, our most momentous advances have been built on a foundation of knowledge about how plants obtain nutrients, their chemical properties, the structure of genes and chromosomes, and how plants interact with the environment and organisms around them. Without this foundation, we would not realize the potential of wild relatives to add hardiness to cultivated species, grasp the principles behind the phenomenal performance of hybrids, or yes learn how to create novel traits through genetic modification. While our Land Grant and other great colleges and universities continue their tradition of creating new plant varieties, their predominant role has trended towards fundamental and proof-of-concept research, and the increasingly technical education of those who will spend their careers in the food system. In effect, we depend on private partners to connect the dots between discovery and the grocery store.

None of the realities and necessities mentioned above excuse unethical behavior, nor militate for an absence of transparency. Discovery thrives only with openness, and the Times has correctly pointed out that a lack of trust in academia benefits no one. At the same time, it is both incorrect and unhelpful to assume the worst when linkages are found between the public and private sectors. We should be neither surprised nor discouraged, and instead understand that our information-driven economy is functioning as it is should. It can be tempting to use GMOs as a punching bag in an attempt to undermine more than 150 years of productive cooperation and transition between academia and companies participating in agriculture. Whatever might be intended, the result of such an imbroglio will most certainly not be what is needed: sustained food production with minimized environmental impact.

David Stern is the President & CEO of Boyce Thompson Institute