Nebraska Innovation Campus, Again

Lincoln -- Many years ago (four decades, in fact) I was employed by the State of Nebraska to review state agency budgets and give my recommendations for changes to the governor and the legislature. Sometimes my recommendations were accepted, sometimes not. I started out on smaller agencies; later I was assigned larger ones, including the University of Nebraska.

If I were still making such recommendations, I'd likely recommend more state taxpayer investment in the Nebraska Innovation Campus. It needs to succeed. Granted, this could mean throwing good money after bad. Since I last wrote on the NIC, its troubles have been documented by local reporters and watchdogs. Indeed, the university does not have a great track record in these ventures. Witness the ill-fated technology park in northwest Lincoln, for example. There is an unfortunate history at the university of me-tooism, about chasing fads like technology parks. I remember UNO's downtown education center, modeled after a self-supporting example in San Francisco. State government offices eventually moved in to bail UNO out.

So there is much to overcome in making a recommendation for more tax support. The 2015 state legislature apparently felt so as well: it denied the university's request for an additional $25 million of tax money for NIC, but told the university to come up with a plan for NIC success before next year; then it would take another look. Fair enough.

NIC's thrust is to innovate in food, fuel, and water. NIC success would be more likely, I believe, if university leaders were more inclined to look around at rapid changes in these areas, especially food, and adapt to them. Not so long ago, the university boasted of creating the technology behind McDonalds' McRib sandwich. But now, if anyone has noticed, McDonalds is closing outlets all over the world. Replacing McDonalds are Chipotles and Paneras, where the emphasis is on fresh and healthy food. Chipotle, like many other food providers including Walmart and Whole Foods, is searching for suppliers for its wares. Nebraska is not much in the hunt, as many of its products are not what these food companies want. (Although there was an uptick in milo acres planted when the price of milo this spring surpassed that of corn.) Are we in Nebraska sufficiently taking note of the demand for healthier foods to address the nation's obesity and diabetes epidemics, which are not going away? How about noting the farm-to-table organic food movement, which is increasing demand for foods free of antibiotics and pesticides?

So far, NIC has thrown in its lot with ConAgra, a trailing-edge rather than leading-edge food processing company. It was not always so; once ConAgra CEO Mike Harper was so dominant he acted as though he controlled state and local governments, demanding and getting whatever he wanted, from state tax subsidies to permits to raze Omaha's jobbers' canyon. But now ConAgra is in trouble because of changing consumer demands. The consumer juggernaut is formidable. Witness how changing consumer demand settled the fight over hog gestation crates. Witness how seed monopolies like Monsanto are seeking protection in Congress from consumer food-labeling advocates. Is NIC paying attention to how rapidly the food world is changing?

The legislature should signal NIC that it would welcome a plan in which NIC becomes a crucible where old food and new food approaches come together to grapple with emerging health and food security issues and products. In the plan, NIC would be the place to be when it comes to food and water, as Silicon Valley has been to computer software. NIC is already well-positioned in regard to the water component, what with the conscience-money donation of $50 million from center-pivot mogul Robert Daugherty. NIC could go on recruiting old line corporations, not as part of a rear-guard, twilight struggle against consumer demand for healthy food, but corporations newly ready to engage with the changing nutrition and food security needs of our time. Simultaneously, NIC must open its doors, its spaces, and its labs and greenhouses to non-profits, food cooperatives, organic researchers and producers, pollinator protection organizations, sustainable agriculture practitioners, consumer advocates, nutrition publishers, and especially health care organizations dedicated to addressing and reversing the dietary deficiencies that have resulted in the precariousness of our health indicators, and an outright world epidemic in the case of diabetes.

Such a plan could be worth another $25 million of tax support. A vibrant NIC might even draw federal research agencies back onto the campus, as was originally conceived. Let's see a plan to justify it.

Pollinator Research

Lincoln -- A UNL entomologist is establishing pollinator plots on the East Campus near 48th and Holdrege Streets. “Now it’s a dream to work in this field,’’ he told the Omaha World-Herald. “Everybody has an interest and wants to help and work with you. The public is embracing the idea of pollinators.’’

This is good news, especially during National Pollinator Week. The Lincoln Journal Star also noted the importance of pollinators in a recent editorial. Likewise, there has been extensive and appropriate press coverage of new UNL research on the harmful effects of pesticides on bee behavior.

What is unsettling, however, are the increasingly strident attacks against those whose concerns for bees and butterflies extend to the misuse of genetic modification technology against such pollinators. Some of us are working on a better understanding of the role GMOs play in the decline of pollinators; for example, the genetic modifications made to crops to produce their own insecticides can harm beneficial as well as destructive insects; and the widespread use of glysophate on certain crops, made glysophate-tolerant through GMO technology, has caused an alarming decline in pollinator habitat. These concerns are based in science, but to read some of the pro-GMO polemicists, one would think people who question the rush to GMOs must also be climate change and evolution deniers, or trendy pseudoscientists. GMO foods may or may not be safe for human consumption (that will take more long-term study; several countries regulate them more than does the U.S.), but their harmful effects on the environment cannot be discounted easily by these kinds of ad hominem attacks.

What is also unsettling is how research in these areas is conducted and how it is being funded. The UNL study showing how pesticides disrupt honey bee behavior was conceived by an elementary-education graduate and funded by the Kimmel Foundation (related to the pollinator-dependent Kimmel orchards). Good for them. But should these questions not be a priority of those whose expertise is entomology and funded by taxpayers rather than interest groups, no matter how worthy? As a former federal research administrator, I know too much about the research funding process, and how faculty pursue grants, not to raise such a question. Research must not be for sale or have the appearance of such. It is doubtless safer to raise the question on this Kimmel-funded study than on one funded by Bayer, Syngenta, or Monsanto, lest the questioner be labeled anti-science for even a bit of skepticism regarding GMOs.

The history of Nebraska suggests those with skepticism about supposed agricultural advances may prevail in the longer run. Think of the skeptics who challenged the "science" of their time such as rain-follows-the-plow; deep plowing of the sod; mechanized farming up and down hills; center-pivot irrigation on sandy soils; the safety of heptachlor and aldrin; the safety of atrazine. All were touted at one time or another by those claiming to be leading scientists. Now the bloom may already be off the rose of glysophate, not only because of its effect on pollinator habitat, but because the World Health Organization has classified it as a probable carcinogen. Skepticism should never go out of fashion; it is, in fact, essential to scientific method itself.

The Ban on Trans Fats

Lincoln -- Today the national press is highlighting the remarkable career of a University of Illinois scientist, Fred Kummerow, who has been attempting since the 1950s to get the Food and Drug Administration to ban trans fats from the U.S. food supply. Professor Kummerow is now 100 years old and has lived to see the FDA finally do just that. "Science won out," he says, and thousands of lives will be saved because of it.

Another scientist should also be given credit, the late Professor Ruth Leverton, graduate of the University of Nebraska and nutrition researcher at NU's College of Home Economics for nearly two decades. While working for the federal government, she pioneered food labeling, so consumers would know what is in their food. When the FDA several years ago mandated that trans fats must be identified on food labels, it was only a matter of time that consumer demand would help drive such products from the market, paving the way for the outright ban.

Last month I was in Ruth Leverton Hall on NU's East Campus. On the south end of the second floor there is a photo of Professor Leverton along with a history of the building that bears her name. Unfortunately, the display is all about the building and little about its namesake's contributions to nutrition and food safety.

I was in Ruth Leverton Hall only incidentally, to get a campus parking permit so as to see the newly installed campus statues of four former U.S. secretaries of agriculture with connections to NU. I could not escape the irony that one of the statues is of a board member of ConAgra, which has fought the FDA in order to continue to include trans fats in its products. ConAgra, which spends millions fighting food labeling efforts nationally, is now in a public private partnership with the university's Department of Food Science and Technology, which necessarily raises questions about conflicts of interest in scientific research.

How about a statue for Ruth Leverton? In the meantime, we can celebrate the University of Illinois scientist who has finally been vindicated for his contributions to food safety.