University of Florida scientists omitted a key fact when they weighed into the debate several local governments are having about whether to ban fertilizer in the rainy summer months. Florida's turf industry not only asked the scientists to intervene but helped pay for research by UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. Such duplicity taints the research. UF must require its scientists to play it straight, including telling the public who foots the bill for researchers masquerading as independent.
St. Petersburg Times staff writers David DeCamp and Craig Pittman recently disclosed that the turf industry had spent at least $505,000 for research projects with the extension service in the past three years. That itself is not unusual. Extension services, established nearly a century ago by Congress, are aimed at making universities' research applicable to everyday life, most often in the agricultural arena. Various industries have long used the extension service, sometimes underwriting the research, to help determine best practices or develop new products such as disease-resistant produce.
But that's not the situation here. In this case, the turf industry sought a research report from IFAS in the midst of a heated debate statewide about the best way to protect waterways from nitrogen and phosphorous pollution. While IFAS has done research on fertilizers, it has focused on the impact on grass, not water pollution.
The proposed Pinellas ordinance banning summertime fertilizer use and sales is one of several under consideration by local governments at the behest of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, an agency charged by Congress with safeguarding the bay. Its members include local governments and state and federal environmental agencies.
Late last year, the estuary program recommended banning fertilizer use from June 1 to Sept. 30, when heavy summer rains can wash more of the fertilizer into the bay, ultimately spurring algae blooms that threaten sea life and producing toxins that cause infections and respiratory problems in humans. IFAS scientists countered there could be unintended consequences of the ban, suggesting property owners will overcompensate with more fertilizer use in the spring and fall — though they had no study to back up the supposition. They also argued a ban could undermine the turfgrass' health, ultimately leading to more erosion and leaching of nutrients.
Information about the turf industry's financial connections can be found on the IFAS Web site, as befitting a public agency subject to open records law. But the scientists never made the connection publicly that their involvement in the fertilizer ban debate came at the turf industry's request. Lead scientist Greg Hochmuth has denied the connection influenced the scientists' report. But the damage is already done. UF president Bernie Machen has taken the matter under consideration. He must set a clear standard: UF's scientists must be honest brokers. Arguing against fertilizer bans without revealing your argument is financed by fertilizer companies misleads the public and taints the university.