By Alexina Cather
Chuck Benbrook, PhD in Agricultural Economics, is a vehement believer in independent science and the power of data. His research and stick-to-the-data approach have framed his critiques of conventional agriculture, embedded in his research on GMOs, pesticides and other areas he has focused on over a long career.
He has come up against seemingly immovable forces in the field of agriculture in recent years. As Benbrook alleges, his critiques of Big Ag led to his effective termination from his Research Faculty position at Washington State University’s “Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.”
However, Benbrook did not start in academia; he spent the first sixteen years of his career in Washington D.C. area, where he worked for the Executive Office of the President, the United States Congress, where he was the staff director for the agricultural subcommittee on “Department Operations, Research, and Foreign Agriculture” from 1981-1983, and the National Academy of the Sciences. He has run a small consulting company since 1990, served as the Chief Scientist for The Organic Center from 2007-2012, and was a Research Professor at Washington State University from 2012-2015.
Benbrook’s career has taken him through government, an agricultural NGO, academia, and business. His experience offers a unique perspective, on not only issues with conventional agriculture, but also on the problems of data spinning and special interest peddling, that he argues are embedded in discourses about agricultural science today.
NYC Food Policy Center (FPC): Why did you make agricultural economics your field of expertise?
Chuck Benbrook (CB): I had majored in economics as an undergrad and when I decided to go to graduate school it seemed like a good idea to stay in the field of economics. But by then, I had started a career in farming and ranching and I wanted to stay involved with the food system, so I decided to get an advanced degree in agricultural economics.
FPC: Do you consider yourself an advocate? If so, how do those two roles relate?
CB: I am a follow the data guy. It certainly makes my work of less interest or value to people that have a special interest, or a pre-conceived idea of where they want to see a given policy go, or what they think science says about food safety or food policy. Following the data is never going to endear a person 100 percent to any group, and, in fact, it is going to create issues and concerns with just about any particular group that has a special interest or desire to see science move policy in a defined direction.
FPC: What challenges come from presenting data that is adversarial to the practices of large, powerful companies including Monsanto?
CB: I would answer the question in the same way whether we were talking about how my work has been received by corporate agriculture and companies like Monsanto or by non-governmental organizations, like the Organic Consumers Association or a number of other environmental NGOs.
There is a lot of spin and mythology in the food and agricultural space. In fact, the supply of both and the importance of both have gone up steadily during my 40 year career. I was the staff director of a congressional subcommittee from 1981 to 1983, back when the Congress functioned pretty well as an institution. As staff director for the subcommittee with jurisdiction over agricultural research, food safety, pesticides, and a lot of other issues within the USDA portfolio, almost all of our hearings had substantial scientific content. We would invite scientists to testify from land-grant universities, organizations, companies and trade associations. For the most part, everyone played it pretty straight, and presented what was considered settled knowledge or settled science as clearly and as thoroughly as they could. For the most part, the Congressional hearing process did a good job of explaining the issues of the day, the challenges and choices ahead, to the members of the committees that were writing legislation, making decisions about budgets, doing the nation’s business through the legislative process. The members had a reasonably accurate feel for what the issues were, because we were able to attract in people who did not have a strong commitment to spinning the data, and spinning the science to try to support a particular outcome.
Well fast-forward to 2017, there are still some Congressional Committees that function reasonably well at least on some topics—but in many cases and certainly in a lot of agricultural and food related cases, congressional hearings are dominated by spokespeople for special interest groups, trade associations and companies. They are there for a purpose. They are there to spin the data to support the current conventional wisdom, which I often have called “mythology” over the course of my career. It has become a really huge problem, because there seems to be less and less of a chance that a realistic and honest appraisal of what we know and what we don’t know, about what’s working well and not working well in our food system relative to human health, animal health and the environment, is ever going to rise to the surface and guide policy making again.
Policy makers hear one group of people saying one thing and another group of people saying something very different. They end up confused and cynical about science in general. One of my greatest concerns as someone involved in this space since the late 1970s, is the erosion of confidence in science as a guide in the public policy process. I’ve watched this unfold over the last 15 to 20 years and I see no force or factor that appears capable of turning it around.
FPC: In what ways do Monsanto and other large agricultural companies influence academic and analytic discourses such as debates about GMOs and organic food?
CB: If you’re a large industry or a significant company you use industry resources to influence the careers of scientists in academia, government, and industry, and at multiple stages of their careers. You use your resources to directly fund research, and to make sure that the design of experiments that are funded with your money are going to, or are very likely to, produce a result that supports the direction you would like to see either your marketing efforts or public policy, or both, go in.
If the research that a company funds does not support the company’s underlying objectives, then there will be discussions with the scientist about possible problems with the study, better ways to get at unanswered questions, and all of the reasons why more research is needed. Depending upon how the research funding contract was written, the company will simply block the publication of the result, or even block the scientists’ ability to talk about their results publicly. They have lots of ways to influence at the margins what science gets done, what science gets talked about in the public, and who’s willing to speak up on controversial matters. Because there has been substantial reduction in state and federal funding for independent agricultural food systems and environmental research, individuals that want to pursue careers in those areas have become increasingly dependent on either direct corporate support, or support from public bodies that are substantially controlled politically by some combination of agribusiness, professional associations, and national and state level commodity groups, which have a lot of clout both at the federal and state levels when research funding is distributed.
In short, corporate and conventional agricultural interests control such a high degree of the science in these spaces, that it is not difficult for them to largely control what gets presented to policy makers and what comes out in the media. The reality is that organizations, institutions, and individuals “on the other side” that have not bought into the mythology of the conventional agricultural community do not have enough spare income or investment capital to support significant, independent research. The only people that pursue that kind of work are gluttons for punishment because they lock themselves off for their entire careers from the primary source of funding for all of other scientists in their fields, which is no small matter.
It costs money to do research.
It is not just for a person’s salary; you have to have access to experimental equipment, laboratory technicians, land and animals to do work on, big data sets and computer specialists. Doing meaningful, basic science and public policy related research takes resources, and there are very few people who have been able over an extended career to marshall an adequate level of resources to build a body of work that can actually get published and stand up to the criticism that kind of work inevitably attracts.
I would say the most important exception to that rule is the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University, within the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Over the last 20 or so years, the Center has provided a safe haven for a critical mass of scientists with solid, tenured academic positions, who are usually well-funded and able to work with high-quality graduate students. Scientists at the Center have been able to work on antibiotic use in agriculture, climate change, nutrition, and water quality issues, among a much longer list of projects over the years.
But I’ll tell you, if you look around the academic world, there are very few examples now of institutions where a group of scientists have been able to do research that has raised questions about the directions of conventional agriculture. If you want the most dramatic contemporary example, the State of Iowa has cut off the Leopold Center from state support. The Center was established in the 1990s to address the serious soil health, water quality, and production problems in Iowa agriculture. It has done great work over two decades, and yet because the Farm Bureau and the corn growers view it as a threat, they have been essentially shut down. The corporate world, and conventional agriculture and its trade associations, do not leave any stone unturned in snuffing out research and individuals that they view as a threat.
FPC: Who do you consult for, and how does working as a consultant differ from working in academia?
CB: The first twelve years of my career I worked in Washington D.C. for the Executive Office of the President, the United Sates Congress and the National Academy of the Sciences—institutions of government jobs. The next 18 years I ran my own small consulting business, “Benbrook Consulting Services” (BCS). BCS has worked for international organizations, some government agencies at the state and federal level, private organizations, consumer groups, environmental groups, and companies.
In 2007, I took a full time job as the Chief Scientist of a small NGO called The Organic Center. I left that NGO job and took a full time Research Professor position at Washington State University to have more of a chance to compete for government grants, publish in top-flight scientific journals, and collaborate with land-grant university scientists who were active in the fields I was working in. That worked great, except for the fact that my work posed too great of a threat apparently to some interests in Washington State agriculture and they convinced the dean to end my position.
After three years at WSU, I continued my work via BCS, and do so to this day. My work is funded, as it has been in the past, by a broad mix of foundations, organizations, and companies. I also do expert witness work on litigation involving various aspects of food production, food safety, and the agriuclture’s environmental footprint.
FPC: What is your answer to those who say working for “the organic industry” creates a conflict of interest in your research?
CB: If that’s true than any scientist that has taken money from the pesticide industry or the biotech industry should also be disqualified from participation in any kind of public dialogue or public process.
I think it’s an insulting and ludicrous claim that every scientist who has ever had any association with a known special interest group or company has from that point on done biased and low quality research. I have published over three dozen peer reviewed papers in fifteen different fields including some of the top journals in the world. You don’t do that by producing poor quality, biased science. You do it through a lot of hard work because getting into top flight peer reviewed journals is really difficult. There is not a shred of evidence that anyone can point to that I have ever done biased, incomplete or low quality research or writing on any topic, whether on the impact of genetically engineered food or organic agriculture or sustainable agriculture.
As I said at the beginning, I am a quant. I get data. I learn how to analyze it and recognize trends and patterns in it. Then I try to first understand, and then explain to people what is driving change, either for better or for worse in the world of food and agriculture. I try to identify how technology, system changes, and policy are impacting human and animal health, and the environment. I try to isolate the forces and factors driving change, and from such insights, suggest what could be done better or differently. Sometimes my work is relevant to those seeking changes in public policy, or wanting to support the status quo. Like many scientists, my work only becomes controversial (and visible) when it plays a role in the policy process and threatens the position, or direction of change, some stakeholder is wedded to.
I have worked for chemical companies, I have worked for biotech companies, I have worked for the organic industry, I have worked for consumer groups, I have worked for international organizations, I have worked for federal agencies and state agencies. Because I have worked for all of them, the idea that I am biased towards all of them is really saying that I should not be able to do any work in this field, unless it is self-financed. I agree with one thing — the availability of funding does often shape, if not control, what a scientist is given the opportunity to work on. But the “funding=bias” claim is spurious, unfair and not true for the majority of scientists, and yet it sticks.
The great fight over genetically modified foods over the last 20 years has spoiled the well of innovation and progress in American agriculture. I was involved with the policy fights over pesticides in the 1980s and 1990s, before the first acre was planted in 1996 to a genetically engineered crop. In the area of row crop farming (i.e. corn, soybeans, cotton), the economic and political forces unleashed in the late 1990s by the commercial introduction of genetically engineered crops have undermined the independence and credibility of not just land grant university science, but the USDA itself.
To assure a way to market genetically engineered seed, the pesticide industry took over (bought) the seed industry, so now the seed-biotech-pesticide industry has near-total control over how plant breeding is used to advance agricultural production, and food safety and quality. The soon-to-be just three major companies control the direction of a large share of agriculture research now through their dominance of various technologies, whereas back in the 1980s, the public interest, and what farmers needed to avoid or solve problems without buying expensive new technology, has taken a back seat, or is simply off the table.
FPC: Food production in the U.S. has radically changed in the past century. What do you think is the most harmful “innovation” food producers have adopted? What do you think is the most beneficial innovation?
CB: In terms of food production, I think the single most damaging trend has been moving livestock from mixed crop-pasture-forage based systems (i.e. mixed farming systems) into feed lots where the cheapest way to feed them is to give them a lot of corn and soybeans. That has had a very negative effect on the nutritional quality of the meat and livestock products. It has vastly increased the problem with foodborne pathogens, and dramatically undermined the health of the animals and increased their dependence on a range of drugs. It has wrecked havoc on the environment. In terms of big picture, I would say that is the biggest mistake American agriculture has made. In Europe by comparison, the majority of pigs, chickens, cattle, dairy cattle are managed and grazed on mid-sized, mixed crop-livestock farms, where they don’t have the same degree of problems in animal health and product nutritional quality as we do here in the United States.
The ability to trace the genetic roots of pathogens and bacteria-related problems is incredibly promising, because it is science which promises in the not too distant future to lead to a set of diagnostic tools that are going to provide more definitive evidence of what’s going right on certain farms and what’s going wrong on other farms at a genetic, molecular, and biochemical level.
Armed with those sorts of insights, even the sparse number of independent scientists active in these fields in the United States will start to shed a much crisper light on what’s going on in certain farming systems, and their work will highlight production practices and technologies that are positive or negative for major performance attributes.
It is also worth noting that in other parts of the world, there is much more high-quality, independent science being done on all sorts of agricultural systems and food quality challenges. While the dominance of corporate and conventional agriculture has dramatically reduced the amount of work that is being done about these topics in the U.S., it is not able to control research in Brazil, Argentina, China and other countries. There is a lot of fascinating and important progress being made around the world in understanding the impacts of alternative agricultural system management. As that information comes out and gets communicated to the American public, and as the American public comes to understand the negative things that are impacting their own health and their children’s health that are rooted in the way that food is grown and animals are raised in the United States, we will move toward a critical mass in the forces needed to alter how food is produced.
FPC: How do you expect our food system to change in the next few decades? Do you foresee positive or negative changes, and why?
CB: I suspect that market forces, rather than policy change, will lead the way for the foreseeable future. I think change will be incremental, but in positive directions for the most part, since the science is so clear now that if we stay on the same course, the collateral damage in terms of human and animal health and the environment will be unmistakable and unacceptable.
I think the big food companies that have a relationship with consumers—the General Mills and Danones of the world—know that increasingly consumers will hold them responsible for the food they buy from them, and the consequences associated with its production and consumption. Consumer-driven food companies and retailers are the ones driving constructive change in agricultural production, and I think that trend is going to gain steam in light of the current political climate. It is hard to believe that consumers are going to be confident that the current administration is going to be watching out for them in terms of the actions by the Environmental Protection Agency, the USDA, and the Food and Drug Administration on organic farming, food safety and food quality, pesticides, and fertilizer runoff into the Gulf.
FPC: In your opinion, which country or countries have the best policies regarding GMOs and organic foods?
CB: Certainly Central Europe— the Netherlands, France, Germany, Denmark, the Scandinavian countries— has probably most the most progressive sustainable agriculture, and food-nutritional quality policies in the world. If you look at the evidence from those countries, there are a number of antibiotics that no longer control a wide range of target bacteria in the United States that are starting to work again on these same bacteria in these countries, because they have taken seriously the overuse of subtherapeutic antibiotic treatment in poultry and hog production, and they have undercut the spread of antibiotic resistance genes that can infect livestock and people.
They have produced irrefutable and tangible results from confronting that issue in a systematic, disciplined way over a number of years. You have a much higher percent of organic food in many Central European countries and in Scandinavia because the governments of those countries have made the commitment not just to doing the research, education and training needed to support the development of organic production systems, but because the countries have invested in essential infrastructure.
It is important for Americans to understand that we have the kind of food system that we have today because of infrastructure investments made by the government and the private sector over the last 30 or 40 years, from the fertilizing industry to pesticides, to tractors and machinery, slaughter houses and irrigation equipment, and throughout the food manufacturing sector. It is completely unrealistic in the U.S. to expect any alternative form of agricultural production and food manufacturing to compete economically with our current systems without some changes in public policy, because in order for organic dairy production, or organic apple production in Washington State, or organic potato production in Wisconsin to reach scale and take advantage of the efficiencies embedded in the scale of production, there has to be up-front investment in essential infrastructure. Good intentions and brilliant innovation will only get you to second base.
There are a couple examples in the U.S. of major organic sectors that have reached or come close to the same economies of scale as enjoyed by conventional companies producing the same commodities. The best example is organic, packaged leafy greens in California, where Earthbound Farms and other organic companies have about 40% market share in pre-washed and packaged spinach and baby greens. Obviously the organic companies have obtained all of the economies of scale as the conventional companies. That is why you can walk into your local store, almost anywhere in America, and buy triple-washed, prepackaged organic leafy greens for around a 15% price premium over the conventional.
As the scale of organic production goes up, incrementally more cost efficiencies are achieved, but those cost efficiencies depend on investments over a number of years in infrastructure. The infrastructure needed for organic production for many commodities is very different than the infrastructure needed to support conventional production. Until those investments are made, we cannot expect dramatic growth in organic or non-conventional types of production. When and as investment capital from Wall Street, Silicon Valley, or the Foodie movement starts flowing into needed infrastructure, things will start changing much more rapidly, because they are going to bend the cost curve down and start to benefit from efficiencies of scale.
FPC: What are the greatest misconceptions consumers and policymakers have about our food system?
CB: That the United States food supply is the cheapest in the world and the highest quality in the world. Both are patently untrue.
FPC: What do you consider your greatest victory or discovery? What do you still want to accomplish?
CB: I think, and hope, my work on patterns of nutrient intake, and especially the quality of fat in animal products, will have the biggest impact of anything I have done in my career. This is because changes in the quality of fat in milk, meat, and eggs, and elsewhere in processed foods, has significantly fueled overweight and obesity, and the metabolic syndrome. Once you do research that fundamentally challenges conventional wisdom, and get it published in decent journals, it is hard to stop science from moving forward.
FPC: What small change can a person make every day to improve our food system?
CB: Avoid fried foods cooked in corn oil or soybean oil, both of which are high in omega-6 fatty acid, and instead choose, or buy or prepare for yourself, fried food cooked in canola oil, or other oils, that are much lower in omega-6 fatty acids and higher in Omega-3s.
Grew up in: Through age nine in the Los Angeles Area.
Job title: President, Benbrook Consulting Services
Brief Background and education: Benbrook received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University (1971), and both a M.A. (1979) and a PhD (1980) in Agricultural Economics from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Benbrook spent over a decade in Washington D.C. working for the Executive Office of the President, the U.S. Congress and the National Academy of the Sciences. He then started his own consulting firm, which he returned to since mid-2015. In between, he was Chief Scientists for “The Organic Center” and held a Research Professor position at Washington State University.
One word you would use to describe our food system: Suboptimal
Food policy hero: No comment
Your breakfast this morning: One English muffin, two farm raised eggs, and a slice of rabbit summer sausage— the functional equivalent of a McDonalds egg and sausage biscuit.
Favorite food: Rib-eye steak
Favorite last meal: Two bottles of chardonnay
Favorite foodie hangout: Nepanthe restaurant in Big Sur
Social media must follow: No comment