The Scientific Activist

If I ran an agricultural biotech company and I wanted to go out of my way to alienate my supporters and lend credence to my conspiracy theory-peddling critics, I think that this is exactly how I would go about doing so. From The New York Times:

Biotechnology companies are keeping university scientists from fully researching the effectiveness and environmental impact of the industry’s genetically modified crops, according to an unusual complaint issued by a group of those scientists.

“No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions,” the scientists wrote in a statement submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency. The E.P.A. is seeking public comments for scientific meetings it will hold next week on biotech crops.

The problem, the scientists say, is that farmers and other buyers of genetically engineered seeds have to sign an agreement meant to ensure that growers honor company patent rights and environmental regulations. But the agreements also prohibit growing the crops for research purposes.

So while university scientists can freely buy pesticides or conventional seeds for their research, they cannot do that with genetically engineered seeds. Instead, they must seek permission from the seed companies. And sometimes that permission is denied or the company insists on reviewing any findings before they can be published, they say.

Such agreements have long been a problem, the scientists said, but they are going public now because frustration has been building.

I don’t think that this has as much to do with biotechs trying to hide anything as it does with the great lengths they’ll go through to protect the bottom line. This is a chronic problem facing transgenic crop research and it illustrates once again why university-based research is so important. The fact of the matter is that the biotechs are always going to have their own profits in mind, so they’re always going to maintain incredibly restrictive policies about how their crops are used by researchers and by farmers.

Also, they’ll continue to focus on underwhelming avenues–particularly crops that are resistant to herbicides or produce their own insecticides–that may be profitable but will do little address the much larger problems of global hunger and malnutrition. This has been a running theme in my past coverage of transgenic crops. So, unfortunately, I think that the only long-term solution here is for researchers to ween themselves off of industry-funded and industry-focused research and instead concentrate on the areas where academia can really make an impact.


  1. #1 humorix
    February 22, 2009

    I think that he has to have countries there which pass besides standards of ‘Monsanto’, and which are free to exploit seeds, to reappoint them and to sell them.
    Everybody is free to examine has his way what check seems to him.

    Traduction Reverso:(french) Je pense qu’il doit y avoir des pays qui passent outre des normes de ‘Monsanto’, et qui sont libres d’en exploiter les semences, de les renommer et de les vendre.
    Tout le monde est libre d’examiner a sa guise ce qui bon lui semble.

  2. #2 Brad
    February 22, 2009

    It is understandable that companies with intellectual property in seeds would limit access to those that are contractually bound to pay royalties, not reverse engineer, sell for seed, etc.

    Here in Canada, Monsanto v. Schmeiser went all the way to the Supreme Court. I’m not sure Wikipedia report things exactly the way they went down, my take is, Schmeiser probably knew exactly what he was doing, Monsanto was justified in their suit to protect their rights. The odd thing in my mind is that the court said in effect, ‘yeah, he infringed on the property rights of Monsanto, but their was no economic benefit so there should be no costs awarded.’ Could this be used to justify experimental use without paying royalty fees, sort of like ‘fair use’ for copyright?

    And don’t underestimate herbicide resistance or pest tolerance. I’ve been growing RR canola for a decade or so, and the decision to smile and pay Monsanto’s fees is a no-brainer.

    Without the reward, how do you get anyone to develop the technology? Canada had – still has, to some extent – a large public plant breeding program. Canola was developed into a major edible-oil crop by this system. Maybe we need to go back to go forward.

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