News and analysis
October 08, 2014

Pledge Worth $500-Million Over 30 Years to Fund Research on Nutrition

FRED PROUSER/REUTERS/NEWSCOM

With a sizable commitment of his fortune, business mogul David Murdock is wading into the protracted, controversial debate over what constitutes a healthy diet. And he is doing it in a way that ensures the work continues long after he’s gone.

Mr. Murdock, 91, has pledged to give $15-million annually from his estate to study ways that nutrition and agriculture can improve people’s health.

“This gift will equal over $500-million in just over 30 years,” says Lynne Safrit, president of the North Carolina Research Campus, where Mr. Murdock’s charity is located.

The money will go to the David H. Murdock Research Institute in Kannapolis, N.C., where he has already donated $140-million.

Mr. Murdock is the owner and chairman of Dole Food Company, in Westlake Village, Calif., and Castle & Cooke, a real-estate development company in Los Angeles.

Ms. Safrit says a portion of his gift will be used to recruit top scientists, including a leader with the potential to win a Nobel Prize.

Mr. Murdock hopes the institute will become the "world’s primary resource for nutritional research," she says.

"He wants to affect people’s diets and people’s understanding of what a healthy diet and lifestyle can do."

Tragedy Sparks Change

Mr. Murdock enjoys a healthy, active life, still running his companies, staying involved in the research institute, and talking to scientists on a regular basis. He exercises daily and eats a strict pescetarian diet, a regimen he has followed since 1985, when his third wife, Gabriele, the mother of his three sons, died of ovarian cancer at age 43.

"He attributes her cancer, in part at least, to diet and the fact that he and his wife did not have healthy diets," Ms. Safrit says. "After she died, he became very disciplined."

In 2003, he founded the Dole Nutrition Institute to encourage people to adopt plant-based diets and provide easily accessible scientific information on nutrition and health.

The lack of such information, Ms. Safrit says, is at the heart of Mr. Murdock’s frustrations about the progress of nutrition research.

"Everybody knows you should eat bananas, pineapple, and spinach­—it’s common sense—but we don’t know why certain things are good for us," she says. "He feels we have yet to identify many of the things that are in our diets that we are receiving benefits from."

Research Needed

Stuart Buck, vice president for research integrity at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, in Houston, says identifying a healthy diet isn’t as simple as it seems.

"A lot of the nutrition research you see out there is very low quality. It depends on self-reported data by people who claim they ate this or that," he says. "People vastly underestimate and misreport what they eat."

The steep price of rigorous research scares off many grant makers, Mr. Buck says.

"It’s expensive to do well-controlled nutritional research," he says. "They think there’s a higher bang for the buck somewhere else."

The Arnold foundation is one of the few philanthropies willing to donate significant sums to this kind of research. Last year, it awarded a $35.5-million grant to the Nutrition Science Initiative, in San Diego, to investigate the link between diet and obesity.

Extended Commitment

Mr. Murdock’s commitment to the Kannapolis area dates back to his ownership of a local textile company, Cannon Mills, in the 1980s.

After he sold the company, it underwent a troubled merger and then bankruptcy, resulting in 4,000 local residents losing their jobs. When its main plant was up for auction, Mr. Murdock decided to buy it back and develop it into a research complex. The project has created 1,000 jobs and trained people—many of whom had never worked outside the textile industry—for jobs in the life sciences.

Through a series of conversations with the research institute’s board over the past few months, he decided to make a gift that would ensure its work could continue without him.

Some would say the reach of his ambitions is too high , but having worked with Mr. Murdock for 32 years, Ms. Safrit says he is not to be underestimated.

"He doesn’t like to be told no," she says. "He’ll find a way to do it."

Send an e-mail to Caroline Bermudez.