Academic Freedom: The Great Butter v. Margarine Controversy at Iowa State

This post summarizes the historic academic freedom controversy at Iowa State College compiled largely from two reports The great butter-margarine controversy and T.W. Schultz and Pamphlet No.5: The Oleo Margarine War and Academic Freedom.

As new food products come on the market, such as soy-based Impossible Burgers, researchers and media might revisit similar case studies of the past, including the great butter v. margarine debate at Iowa State College.

One of the main figures in the case was South Dakota economist T.W. Schultz, a radio journalist in his youth. He came to Iowa State College as an assistant professor in 1930. About a decade later, during World War II, he obtained a small grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to conduct research on farm and food policy. That led to the publication of infamous “Pamphlet No. 5.”

The publication recommended vegetable fat, or margarine, for butter because making the latter was too labor intensive. There was also a shortage of butter overseas with the troops. Moreover, margarine was seen as an acceptable food substitute and just as nutritious. (Harmful trans fat of margarine had yet to be fully researched.)

An argument associated with climate change rather than labor intensiveness is being used to promote plant-based food products, replacing beef and eventually pork and chicken. Advocates say those new products are better for the environment. Social mores, what society holds important at any given time, often dictate conflicts of interest.

Journalists have to be careful and fair to all sides when writing about such debates. Health and economic interests often conflict. And, as we will see in this butter v. margarine case, sometimes those who lobby against replacement food products might have a viewpoint worth considering.

A few weeks after publication of Pamphlet No. 5, the National Dairymen’s Association purchased the entire back page of the Des Moines Register, attacking Schultz and a graduate student, O.H. Brownlee, who authored the publication. The advertisement denounced margarine, touting the nutrients of butter.

Then the dairy industry took aim at Iowa State’s president, Charles Friley, pressuring him to retract the publication and fire Brownlee. When that wasn’t done in a timely manner, industry representatives contacted the Dairy Record in St. Paul, Minn., which labeled Schultz as “sadistic” and “unstable.”

Now a major medium had taken sides, putting Iowa State and academic freedom in the spotlight.

At the time, President Friley was still defending academic freedom. But the dairy lobby argued that Iowa State received taxpayer funds and had no business recommending margarine or any major policy change in how the nation does business, during war or, apparently, anytime else.

President Friley did as many leaders do in crisis situations: He formed a committee. What he hadn’t foreseen, however, was how the panel’s deliberations would be covered closely by the news media. Committee reports incensed the dairy lobby, which again took out a full-page advertisement in the Register denouncing the university.

Friley blinked. He decided to forbid another Iowa State report on wartime food matters and said social scientists should not make policy recommendations.

Soon after, the committee that he assembled condemned Brownlee’s margarine report. That emboldened Friley who reportedly wanted that original article retracted and then planned to reorganize the Iowa State College Press’s editorial board so as to dispel members who disliked how he handled the situation.

Friley also planned to reorganize the Department of Economics and Sociology

Department head Theodore Schultz had enough. He resigned. Here is an excerpt from his resignation letter:

Mr. President, I have given much thought to ways and means of discussing these issues with you in an atmosphere conducive to clear thinking and constructive solutions. I want to be sure that our primary concern will be the welfare of Iowa State College. I do not want to protect my position or enhance my role at the College. So that our discussion may be as free as possible from any concern about my personal or professional interest as a member of the staff, I shall submit my resignation from the Iowa State College when we meet to discuss these matters on September 17.

When Schultz left for the University of Chicago, 15 social scientists also eventually resigned from Iowa State. Many followed Schultz to Chicago.

There are two ending ironies associated with the great butter v. margarine controversy.

In 1979, when Schultz was visiting Iowa State to deliver a lecture, Economics Department Chair Raymond R. Beneke received a call from NBC news wanting to congratulate Schultz on winning the Nobel Prize. Those on campus believed it was serendipitous that Schultz should receive word about this highest distinction while on campus. When asked by a reporter what he thought about the coincidence, he replied that Ames “is a very unusual and very precious place.”

But the final irony may have been that the dairy industry was essentially correct about butter being more nutritious than margarine. According to the Harvard Medical School, “The truth is, there never was any good evidence that using margarine instead of butter cut the chances of having a heart attack or developing heart disease. Making the switch was a well-intentioned guess, given that margarine had less saturated fat than butter, but it overlooked the dangers of trans fats.”

The moral of this case study concerns academic freedom and the news media’s right to cover controversies, especially ones impacting health and economy. Fairness is essential during those moments. But don’t discount the role of advertising, either. Because the dairy industry couldn’t get sufficient coverage of its viewpoint, it took out entire page ads that pressured Iowa State to make concessions. The dairy industry’s public relations practitioners delivered an effective campaign to articulate its side.

As the butter v. margarine case illustrates, food science takes time to cover all aspects of debates. Journalists and practitioners take heed: Media history often repeats itself.

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