Why One Researcher Is Crowdfunding Her Study of an Organic Diet

October 15, 2015

Have you heard? Some academic researchers studying food and diet-related topics are for sale, and Big Food companies are more than willing to buy them.

This has resulted in “studies” touting the benefits of genetically modified foods, as well as numerous reports offering conclusions that are favorable to the industry players who sponsor them. Nutrition policy expert Marion Nestle is keeping track: Since mid-March, she’s found 70 nutrition-related academic studies whose results appear to affirm the funder’s interests, and has only found six with results that appear unfavorable to the sponsor.

In a twist on traditional corporate or government research funding, a Boise State professor is turning to an unlikely group of people to fund her latest research project—us.

Rather than take money from either agribusiness or the $40 billion organic industry, Dr. Cynthia Curl is crowdfunding a project that will put groups of low-income, pregnant women on diets of organic and conventional foods, respectively, and then compare the health outcomes of their children for up to seven years after their birth. Curl and her team will measure pesticide levels in the women and children before and after birth, as well as the child’s cognitive levels and attention span.

Ultimately, Curl says she hopes the study will bring some empirical evidence to the debate over whether an organic diet is actually healthier than a conventional one.

“I think when we all go to the grocery store and we’re faced with the choice of buying organic versus conventional, we wonder if there’s going to be a measurable difference in health,” Curl told Boise Public Radio. “And that’s the question we’re trying to answer with this study.”

She said she’s excited about this funding model—which is, perhaps, the first of its kind—because it gives everyday Americans some say in the topic they’d like to see researched more. In the case of organic foods, Curl said she believes she’ll receive donations both from individuals interested in seeing evidence-based research on the benefits of an organic diet as well as donors wanting to help low-income pregnant women access fresh produce.

“The funding that we raise here will go directly to buying the fruits and vegetables that we’ll be providing to the low income women who participate in our study,” Curl said. “Secondly, anyone who is interested in understanding whether there is a health benefit to eating organic could benefit from learning the results of our research.”

According to the study’s PonyUp donation page, Curl and her colleagues have already raised more than half of their $7,500 goal from more than 40 individual donors.

Could crowdsourcing be the new preferred method for funding academic studies? It might have to be: Curl says government grant money is, sadly, drying up for research like hers.

Photo credit: Alicia Cho

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats, TakePart.com, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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