Do Seed Companies Control GM Crop Research?

By Matt Collins

By Matt Collins

By Scientific American 

It is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers. Scientists must ask corporations for permission before publishing independent research on genetically modified crops. That restriction must end.

Advances in agricultural technology—including, but not limited to, the genetic modification of food crops—have made fields more productive than ever. Farmers grow more crops and feed more people using less land. They are able to use fewer pesticides and to reduce the amount of tilling that leads to erosion. And within the next two years, agritech com panies plan to introduce advanced crops that are designed to survive heat waves and droughts, resilient characteristics that will become increasingly important in a world marked by a changing climate.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.

To purchase genetically modified seeds, a customer must sign an agreement that limits what can be done with them. (If you have installed software recently, you will recognize the concept of the end-user agreement.) Agreements are considered necessary to protect a company’s intellectual property, and they justifiably preclude the replication of the genetic enhancements that make the seeds unique. But agritech companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta go further. For a decade their user agreements have explicitly forbidden the use of the seeds for any independent research. Under the threat of litigation, scientists cannot test a seed to explore the different conditions under which it thrives or fails. They cannot compare seeds from one company against those from another company. And perhaps most important, they cannot examine whether the genetically modified crops lead to unintended environmental side effects.

Research on genetically modified seeds is still published, of course. But only studies that the seed companies have approved ever see the light of a peer-reviewed journal. In a number of cases, experiments that had the implicit go-ahead from the seed company were later blocked from publication because the results were not flattering. “It is important to understand that it is not always simply a matter of blanket denial of all research requests, which is bad enough,” wrote Elson J. Shields, an entomologist at Cornell University, in a letter to an official at the Environmental Protection Agency (the body tasked with regulating the environmental consequences of genetically modified crops), “but selective denials and permissions based on industry perceptions of how ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’ a particular scientist may be toward [seed-enhancement] technology.”

Shields is the spokesperson for a group of 24 corn insect scientists that opposes these practices. Because the scientists rely on the cooperation of the companies for their research—they must, after all, gain access to the seeds for studies—most have chosen to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. The group has submitted a statement to the EPA protesting that “as a result of restricted access, no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the tech nol ogy.”

It would be chilling enough if any other type of company were able to prevent independent researchers from testing its wares and reporting what they find—imagine car companies trying to quash head-to-head model comparisons done by Consumer Reports, for example. But when scientists are prevented from examining the raw ingredients in our nation’s food supply or from testing the plant material that covers a large portion of the country’s agricultural land, the restrictions on free inquiry become dangerous.

Although we appreciate the need to protect the intellectual property rights that have spurred the investments into research and development that have led to agritech’s successes, we also believe food safety and environmental protection depend on making plant products available to regular scientific scrutiny. Agricultural technology companies should therefore immediately remove the restriction on research from their end-user agreements. Going forward, the EPA should also require, as a condition of approving the sale of new seeds, that independent researchers have unfettered access to all products currently on the market. The agricultural revolution is too important to keep locked behind closed doors.

Read full article and comments here.

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5 responses to “Do Seed Companies Control GM Crop Research?

  1. strangely enough this got NYTimes pages about 7? months ago, yet it stopped there apart from one blogger I found..took awhile to get round.
    Mass Spectometer work done in ITALY i have a pdf of, shows the rBGH showing up after processing,
    that also copped flack and was ridiculed…
    THIS statement I take exception with!

    Farmers grow more crops and feed more people using less land. They are able to use fewer pesticides and to reduce the amount of tilling that leads to erosion.

    Fact, per area we are using more land, its just being used in more places, like Amazon forests etc.
    the older mixed farms produce more per acre, of a wide variety, aure monocrop acre of the same size produces more wheat Specifically, etc than a mixed, but?
    is all you eat for every meal every day wheat?
    looked at that way its daft!
    and input costs are neglected in that also.!
    Pesticide cost and useage is UP every Year, and more chemicals of different sorts are being needed.
    No Till has uses in drought and flood prone places in a limited use, but long term (and the chem cos promote it as green!) it actually creates deeper problem with water resistant hard pans allowing toxic run off. and starving subsoil of water and nutrients. and chemicals are NOT nutrients. they are industrial waste re badged! just like Fluoride!
    Traditional Farming has natural science behind it, centuries worth! but if its not presened in a white coat, by some overeducated idiot that never has farmed a damn thing, sorry its Not credible. testing one part?? of a symbion sytemt, is ludicrous, and is NOT science -its playing at science.

    • right, the thing about this SciAm piece is that paragraph where they list all the propaganda without quotation marks – as if these are facts. that’s a bit disinformative.

  2. hi rady, yup sci am does it often I notice 🙂 I had a running battle on the world phosphate shortage.. same sort of”stae this” and no one is to question it, just follow. The complete control of seed and legal threats is VERY real though.
    and if? you sorta managed to somehow obtaon any samples to test…well you breach Mon Legals and get busted even if what you Prove is 100% perfect.
    Lock stock and barrell they getcha ;-(

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