Jul 052010

A battle is quietly being waged between the industry that produces genetically modified seeds and scientists trying to investigate the environmental impacts of engineered crops. Although companies have recently given ground, researchers say these firms are still loath to allow independent analyses of their patented — and profitable — seeds.

In February 2009, frustrated by industry restrictions on independent research into genetically modified crops, two dozen scientists representing public research institutions in 17 corn-producing states told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the companies producing genetically modified (GM) seed “inhibit public scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good” and warned that industry influence had made independent analyses of transgenic crops impossible.

Unprepared for the scientists’ public protest and the press accounts that followed it, the industry, through its American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), met with crop scientists. Late last year, ASTA agreed that, while still restricting research on engineered plant genes, it would allow researchers greater freedom to study the effects of GM food crops on soil, pests, and pesticide use, and to compare their yields and analyze their effects on the environment.

While many scientists expressed optimism about the agreement, questions remain over whether — and how soon — it will alter what has been a research environment rife with obstructions and suspicion.

Since the first GM crops were planted some 15 years ago, the companies that developed them have claimed broad control over their use. Farmers don’t simply buy a bag of GM seed from Monsanto, Syngenta, or DuPont. Instead, they enter into a “Technology/Stewardship Agreement” with the company that developed it, the fine print of which lays out, among other things, the terms under which the seed can be used, where it can be grown, where it can be sold (many international governments do not allow the sale of GM crops or products made with them), and the brand of herbicides that can be used. This “bag-tag,” as it’s known, also specifically restricts any use of the seed for research.

While U.S. farmers quickly adopted GM crops — GM corn now makes up nearly the entire U.S. crop, and GM soybeans are not far behind — scientists found it hard to adapt to the bag-tag paradigm.

“We used to be able to go into any farm store and buy seeds, test them in the field, and publish our results,” said one researcher. With the advent of GM crops, however, even scientists working in public land grant institutions, whose extension services have long provided farmers with independent analyses, found their research ultimately subject to seed company approval.

If a scientist wanted to compare brands of seeds, for instance, or their environmental impact, he or she had to seek permission from each seed company or gene patent holder. Open access to the study’s data and the right to publish that data had to be secured, while, for their part, the companies sought to protect their patents and intellectual property rights. Even if the companies did not object, contract negotiations, made on a case-by-case basis, could be extended and onerous. Making things worse was that with fewer public monies available for farm research, scientists, and their universities, found themselves increasingly dependent on the seed companies for funding.

The companies were not loath to press their advantage.

“I have talked to dozens of scientists who have gone through incredible machinations to do their research,” says Charles Benbrook, the chief scientist with The Organic Center who served from 1984 to 1990 as executive director of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture. And when their data presents a challenge to the companies, he says, these scientists “have found themselves under personal and professional threats.” Among research that has faced industry disapproval, says Benbrook, are studies on evolving weed resistance, on plant pathogens, and on susceptibility of non-pest insects to the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)-derived toxins that protect the GM plants against insect pests.

“Scientists are clearly intimidated,” says Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program.

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