News Story

Ethanol Study Touted as Independent Was Paid for by Corn Growers

No hard rules for identifying conflict of interest

A study paid for by the Michigan Corn Growers Association was recently reported in the news media as though it had been conducted independently. This public relations coup for the ethanol industry was pulled off by touting it as “a Michigan State University study” and omitting the fact that it was done on behalf of the Michigan Corn Growers Association. Reporters then assumed it was an academic study conducted independently of the ethanol industry.

On Dec. 17, Michigan Capitol Confidential asked MSU spokesman Jason Cody if the study “Greenhouse Gas Reduction in Michigan Due to Ethanol Fuel Use,” was an MSU study.

Cody’s response: “Yes, this was an MSU study conducted by researchers here on campus that focused on greenhouse-gas emission reductions due to ethanol fuel use in Michigan. The study found substantial reductions in emissions.”

On Jan. 26, after receiving a tip from a source, Michigan Capitol Confidential asked Cody if the Michigan Corn Growers Association had paid for the study.

“Yes, it is my understanding they did,” Cody replied.

It could be argued that if the Michigan Corn Growers Association paid for it, the study was an “industry study” that should never be referred to as an “MSU study.” However, there are no hard rules that cover such terminological distinctions.

According to a well-placed source, the Michigan Corn Growers Association’s role as sponsor of the study was noted at the initial press conference announcing it. What is less clear is whether the press conference was attended by many independent reporters or filled with ethanol industry officials and writers. Michigan Radio appears to be the one news source to mention the study's sponsor; however, that information seems to have been added subsequent to the original posting of the article.

Aside from the press conference, the study was touted to the news media solely as an MSU product without mention of its actual sponsorship. As a result, several articles about the study gave it glowing publicity without stating that it was paid for by the Michigan Corn Growers Association. The fact that the press release announcing the study also failed to reveal this information was likely a primary reason for what happened.

“Corn ethanol is a multi-billion dollar industry and it’s not surprising that the corn growers' association would fund misinformation that essentially lines their pockets,” said Emily Cassidy, a research analyst with the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C. research and advocacy group focused on environmental health, food and agriculture issues.

“But regardless of their funding source, the study holds no merit and wouldn’t hold any more merit even if it was funded by the National Science Foundation,” said Cassidy. EWG is best known for its annual "Dirty Dozen" list of foods with high pesticide residues.

In the original Michigan Capitol Confidential story on the report, the study was criticized on its merits by several independent ethanol researchers.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.