The Council of Agricultural Scence and Technology (CAST), a self-proclaimed scientific research organization, is once again facing charges of pro-industry bias. This tme the trouble is right in its own backyard -- the heartland of American agriculture -- and the critic is the Des Moines Register.
In December, six scientists resigned from a CAST task force studying the role of antibiotics and animal feed, claiming bias. And in late February, two other scientists charged that a CAST report on organic farming was "inherently biased" and "totally discredited."
None of this would matter much -- except that CAST is a highly influential voice on Capitol Hill. Joe Krapa, staff dirctor of the Nutrition Subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee, characterizes their reports as "powerful documents quoted back and forth during committee hearings." And according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, CAST is considered "as a scientific impartial group providing sound advice" to Congress.
CAST describes itself in similar terms. In a Feb. 2 letter to the editor of BioScience magazine, CAST president J. F. Carter insists that "CAST's Board of Directors adopts no policy position on any of the subjects addressed. Task Forces are requested not to advocate or oppose any policy except on grounds of scientific validity... Any organization that operates in the public arena probably will attract a few bricks...." And in recent months, the bricks have been flying.
For five of its last seven years, CAST has occupied rent-free offices at Iowa State University. Iowa State pays the $41,000 salary of the council's executive vice president, Charles A. Black, a professor in the Department of Agronomy. The Des Moines Register, which reported that Iowa State spent more than $200,000 subsidizing the council, questioned whether such monies were appropriate because CAST "frequently acts as an advocate for agribusiness."
On Jan. 21, the Register published an article detailing the financial arrangements CAST had with Iowa State, along with a story about the resignation of the six scientists from the antibiotics task force. And in a Jan. 24 editorial, the Register urged the university to sever its relations with CAST:
"Iowa State should ask whether its seven-year connection with CAST has served the public through dissemination of unbiased research, or whether ISU has served agribusiness firms by letting its name by used to give a cache of respectability to one-sided research and reports.
"The university should see to it that CAST moves off campus -- not just technically, but physically."
On April 1, CAST is scheduled to move out of its present offices -- and into rented space in another building on the Ames, Iowa campus. Black has said that he prefers to be on college grounds because a university address "gives us a better credibility." According to the Register, "politics may have played a role in CAST's move." (In addition, CAST will soon begin paying Black's salary, as it now pays the salary of CAST staff member Theodore Hutchcroft, who has been teaching classes in journalism.)
These are only the latest in a series of controversies which have surrounded CAST since March of 1976, when it placed ads in five major newspapers, including The Washington Post.
The ads invited the public to make a "toll-free telephone call [that] will put you in touch with one of 28 university and government scientists... to answer your questions about food safety and production."
The $5,000 ads were placed by CAST, which was paying for a two-day phone-in held in connection with Food Day, an event created by a consumer group, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Many critics later charged that the purpose of the CAST phone-in was to counteract the information being disseminated by CSPI about the safety of chemicals, food and feed. Black denies this, reiterating that the phone-in was merely intended to "give people an opportunity to ask questions on food production, safety and nutrition."
Nothing in the CAST ads explained the make-up of the council or that the ads were paid for by the National Agricultural Chemical Association, a trade group. When Black was asked why the council's affiliations were not made clear, he said: "People aren't interested in that -- they're interested in the information that was given."
But it seems that people were interested. And the curiosity is no longer confined to CSPI and its director, Dr. Michael Jacobson, plus a few others. Recent developments have brought the council under intensive scrutiny.
When CAST incorporated in 1972, its announced intention was "to provide sound information on agricultural science and technology in response to irresponsible unscientific information that has been abroad."
One high official at the Department of Agriculture has a different view. "I think of them as spokesmen for a particular point of view, like the Center for Science in the Public Interest," said the USDA official, "but unlike the center, CAST appears to decide where they want to go and then devises a course of study that will get them there."
And Dr. Donald Kennedy, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, says: "I don't think their record of objectivity is good. They behave more like an advocacy group than an objective scientific organization."
CAST describes itself as made up of 26 scientific societies, some 124 agribusiness corporations and organizations, and 142 industrial trade associations. The corporations and trade groups -- which provide about 60 percent of the council's operating budget -- include those that manufacture pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, drugs and additives: Dow Chemical, American Cyanamid, Mobil Chemical Company, International Multifoods, Union Carbide, Upjohn Co., Eli Lilly and Monsanto. Each of these pays up to $6,000 a year, based on sales of agricultural products.
Sustaining members, who pay between $60 and $120 a year, include the American Meat Institute and the National Canners Association. Special grants-in-aid have come from such companies as Merck & Co., General Mills and Ralston Purina. In addition, industry money supports projects and events at which CAST reprots are publicized.
But nowhere in its published reports, news releases, or even on its stationery is the connection to industry noted, though the members of the scientific societies are always listed.
Black dismisses criticism that "industry is running the show [as] a good political argument but not factual." Industry funding, he said in a television interview, is a "continuing bone of contention of news media who want to discredit how CAST operates. People on the task forces don't get any pay from industry."
Since its inception CAST has actively campaigned on a number of fronts where agricultural chemicals are involved. One of the first to be brought to public attention was a report it sent to members of Congress and federal health regulatory agencies in 1976 questioning the basis on which the Environmental Protection Agency banned several widely used pesticides.
The report appeared less than a month after EPA banned heptachlor and chlordane, suspected of being cancercausing agents. Basically CAST's report suggests that EPA change the terms it uses for defining carcinogenicity. The report states that there is a tolerance level for humans to chemical pollutants which ought to be based "on an acceptable degree of hazard."
In the CAST report," carcinogens" and "toxic substances" or "chemical pollutants" are used interchangably, which confuses the issue. While the scientific community accepts the concept of "a tolerance level" for toxic substances, many scientists do not believe there is a tolerance level for carcinogens.
CAST has produced other reports favoring the continued use of various controversial substances: nitrites in cured meats, DES in cattle, fortified donuts in the school breakfast program and antibiotics in animal feed.
Until the last three reports the organization's findings had been unanimous. Then came the report on antibiotics. It was prepared in response to announced intentions of the Food and Drug Administration to prohibit the use of penicillin and tetracyclines in animal feed because of concren that continued use could lead to durg-resistant bacteria in livestock which could produce disease in humans. Last December, as the antibiotic paper was being prepared, six members of the task force resigned, charging CAST with bias.
In a memo of resignation to the task force chairman, Virgil Hays, a University of Kentucky animal nutritionist, the dissident scientists charged that CAST "has not acted in good faith with respect to its announced intention to prepare an unbiased report on antibiotics in animal feeds and has taken a public in animal feeds and has taken a public stand before the publication of the final report that is both a direct contravention of neutrality and a misrepresentation of our contributions as members of the Task Force."
The memo charged that "some of the experimentally validated conclusions pertaining to the human health aspects of antibiotic usage in animal feeds had been weakened or omitted." The scientists also wrote that "the published data have been editorially revised and/or omitted."
In addition, the scientists took exception to CAST's highly critical reaction to an ABC network broadcast about animal drugs. They said it contained "several factual errors and omissions concerning bacterial drug resistance and its influence on human health and therefore states some conclusions and suggest still others which are invalid."
Black, who oversees the reports, says he regrets the disagreement. In a Jan. 22 letter to the group, he pointed out that "controversy among scientists is nothing new; indeed, it is the norm," and offered the scientists alternatives for returning to the project.
Another recent -- and controversial -- report denegrates organic farming as a fad. Two weeks ago CAST held its annual board meeting in the Washington offices of the National Food Processors Association. The board heard charges from two members of the orgnic farming task force, which they described as a "railroad job." The two scientists said they had written 10 pages about the positive aspects of organic farming but only two sentences were used in the draft report. They charged that the task force was structured to preclude any decision other than that organic farming is a fad, and claimed that a letter Black sent to the task force last fall determined in advance how the report would come out, The letter Black sent said: "As you know organic farming and gardening and 'organic' foods are counter-culture issues of continuing concern."Black confirmed this quotation, but denied that the report was biased.
Yet another controversy arose in the January issus of BioScience, a publication of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. A story on CAST said that the organization "prides itself on its rapid report production, and takes many shortcuts.... In order to facilitate arriving at a consensus on each of the controversial topics the group takles, CAST deligerately excludes 'extremists' from all its task forces."
James Witt, an agricultural chemist at Oregon State University who is quoted in the article, describes CAST's definition of extremists as "anything left of neutral." Witt argues that dissenters are essential for valid scientific exploration of controversial topics: "They can be there to rub your nose in some facts you've managed to ignore."
CAST responded in a letter that the article was "replete with errors, misrepresentations and half-truths."
In another, less-publicized incident, a member of the CAST task force on the suitability of fortified donuts (known technically as "enriched grain-fruit products") in the school lunch program found her minority opinion absent from the final report. And the USDA -- which had proposed banning of the products -- received a document from CAST in which it appeared taht all of the task force members concurred in objecting to the ban.
Alst week FDA's Kennday summed up what has happened to CAST's reputation over the past few months: "It's becoming clear to so many people that they are not objective. It's difficult for anybody not to raise serious questions now."
"The resignation of the scientists," he said, "will have a serious effect on CAST's credibility."