November 2, 2005


Seedy business: Who controls research at Iowa State University?

By Tom Philpott

Plunked down in the land of huge, chemical-addicted grain farms and
the nation's greatest concentration of hog feedlots, Iowa State
University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture has always
had a tough row to hoe.

Imagine trying to operate an Anti-Cronyism League from Bush's West
Wing, and you get an idea of what the Leopold Center is up against.
Industrial agriculture runs the show in Iowa, sustained by regular
infusions of federal cash and its government-sanctioned ability to
"externalize" the messes it creates. The state grabbed $12.5 billion
in federal agriculture subsidies between 1995 and 2004 -- second only
to Bush's own home state. Iowa leads all states in hog production: It
churned out 14.5 million pigs in 2001 alone, the vast majority from
stuffed, environmentally and socially ruinous CAFOs (confined-animal
feeding operations).

Yet since springing to life in 1987 by fiat of the Iowa legislature --
funded ingeniously by state taxes on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticide
-- the Leopold Center has become an invaluable national resource for
critics of industrial agriculture and seekers of new alternatives.

Now, however, a sudden purge at the top has called the Center's much-
prized independence from industrial agriculture into question.

The Leopold Center operates under the authority of Iowa State
University's College of Agriculture. Last Friday, the college issued a
press release announcing that the Leopold Center's director of five
years, Fred Kirschenmann, had "accepted a new leadership role as a
distinguished fellow of the center."

The college went on to state that it had named an interim director,
effective Nov. 1.

Kirschenmann himself, however, tells a more interesting tale than
what's contained in the press release's bland prose. He says his move
from director to "distinguished fellow" came suddenly and without his
own input.

"On Wednesday [Oct. 26] I received a letter from the interim dean
asking me to resign by Friday and decide by then if I would accept the
position of distinguished fellow at the center," Kirschenmann told me

"I wrote her [the interim dean] back telling her I thought she was
moving too fast, that there wouldn't be time for a smooth transition.
She wrote back that it was a done deal -- she had already named a new

Kirschenmann says the interim dean, Wendy Wintersteen, had been on
Leopold's advisory board for years and had served on the search
committee that hired him in 2000. "She was always very supportive of
what we were doing," Kirschenmann says. "Until about two years ago.
Then she became very critical."

Her critique centered on the idea that in its work the Leopold Center
was neglecting "key stakeholders," Kirschenmann adds. "But she never
really clarified who those stakeholders were."

Might she have been refering to agribusiness interests? "You can draw
your own conclusions," Kirschenmann says. She never cited any reason
for the de facto purge, save for "some verbiage about how I would be
free to pursue my own work without having to worry about
administrative duties."

To be sure, Iowa State's College of Agriculture draws agribusiness
cash the way a penned-up pig wallowing in its own waste draws flies. I
have a call into the college for a list of corporate donors; until
that call is returned, let it suffice that this is the sort of
research the college commonly proffers: A study claiming to show that
the genetically modified seed industry deserves a greater "level of
intellectual property protection... than what existed in the North
American seed corn market in the late 1990s." Collaborators: a pair of
scientists from GM seed titan Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., a
subsidiary of DuPont.

Here are glowing testimonials from two of the college's "partners":
John Deere and Cargill.

Kirschenmann says he accepted the "distinguished fellow" position
because Wintersteen assured him he could continue doing his own work
on sustainable agriculture. And that work is important. Under
Kirschenmann the Leopold Center bluntly criticized and rigorously
documented the environmental and social calamities being wrought by
industrial agriculture.

Will he continue to be able to do that work at Leopold? "We'll see how
it goes," he told me.

Copyright 2005. Grist Magazine, Inc.