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.
Environmental studies on the effects of the plants on insects, bacteria, and aquatic habitats have been particularly difficult to conduct. Entomologists are concerned whether pest insects will develop resistance to Bt — studies that have been hindered by industry efforts to reduce the required size of field “refuges” where non-resistant insects can mate with any resistant insects.
Crop scientists want to know how long glyphosate — known most widely as Monsanto’s Roundup, and which is the herbicide to which these plants were genetically engineered to be resistant — will remain effective as weeds evolve their own resistance. Glyphosate has proven to be one of the least environmentally hazardous herbicides. If overuse negates its effectiveness, farmers may have to return to older weed control methods, including more hazardous chemicals or mechanical weeding that causes erosion.
The problem of doing this kind of research, in Benbrook’s view, is far worse than has ever been reported because of the scientists’ longstanding concerns about going public: “There are few people who have gone through it who want to talk about it.”
This was made clear when the 24 scientists penned their warning to the EPA last February. Their submission to an obscure EPA docket on an industry proposal for combating corn rootworms and other pests was made anonymously, all 24 deciding to withhold their names because, as they wrote, “virtually all of us require cooperation from industry at some level to conduct our research.” The 24 told the EPA that it was impossible to comment not only on the project at hand, but on any such projects, because industry bag-tag restrictions precluded independent research.
The scientists did not remain anonymous for long. Once the press picked up their concerns, they came to represent for many all that was wrong with agricultural science in the age of GMO’s.
“What’s happened,” says Benbrook, “is that with no independent voice on either the positive aspects of genetic studies or the negative, the public gets PR from the companies or spin from activist groups. As a result the issues around GM crops become more complicated and divisive than necessary. The companies, in their paranoia, have created a vacuum of expertise and it’s the farmers who will ultimately be the victims.”
In a paper co-authored (non anonymously) by nine of the 24 researchers and published last month in GM Crops, the scientists elaborated upon their grievances. Research restrictions, they wrote, preclude public scientists “from meeting their obligations to the American crop producer and ultimately the consumer.” The system, as it now stands, “sets up an uneven relationship where industry partners may unduly influence the way research is designed and disseminated.” Even once an agreement has been successfully negotiated, they wrote, there’s no guarantee the company won’t withdraw its participation if the results appear to be unfavorable to its product.
Their statement, they wrote, was “meant as a warning that the assumption of independence is not longer valid under current company-imposed restrictions on public sector research.”
“We were just looking to pursue the questions that need to be answered,” says Elson Shields of Cornell University’s Department of Entomology, one of the formerly anonymous twenty-four.
For 10 years, Shields says, he and his fellow scientists worked around the companies’ restrictions. But they felt that too many scientific issues were not being addressed. In particular, scientists could not be certain that multi-year studies would be renewed or that they’d be allowed to follow up on unexpected findings “which reflects the very essence of scientific inquiry.” Such uncertainties, says Shields, meant that many experiments were never initiated.
“Farmers were wondering why we weren’t conducting research, and they were concerned,” says Shields.
When they submitted their letter to the companies, Shields says, “We didn’t plan or anticipate the strength of the response.” The industry, too, seemed to be caught unprepared.
“I think each company was hearing a little bit from relationships they had from individual universities and researchers,” says Andrew LaVigne, president and CEO of the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), the industry’s trade organization. “But we were a little surprised.”
During June of 2009, in an attempt to resolve their differences, ASTA and company representatives met with scientists at the corn entomologists meeting in Ames, Iowa.
“It was,” says LaVigne, “an ‘Ah-ha!’ moment for company senior management.”
At a meeting in December 2009, the companies said that while they would not agree to remove the bag-tag restrictions on research “for reasons of competitiveness in the marketplace,” they would agree to enter into blanket research agreements called Academic Research Licenses (ARLs) with public institutions. These ARLs would make it unnecessary for scientists to apply to do research on a case-by-case basis. The language in these agreements — approved by the companies, ASTA, and the Biotechnology Industry Organization — would supersede that of the bag-tag.
Research could include agronomic and yield comparisons, comparative efficacy studies, pest biology and resistance management studies, and studies on the interactions of introduced traits with the environment.
In a statement on the scientists’ concerns, Monsanto said that it had for years had ARLs in place with universities and that although it believed the company’s relationships with researchers had been “overwhelmingly positive,” it realized “we can do more to communicate… the freedom they have to conduct wide-ranging research” on their GM crops. Monsanto said its intention was to “assure that the public sector research community is free to design robust, scientifically sound experimental protocols… derive independent conclusions,” and “is free to publish findings… with reasonable notice to companies.”
What is not included in the agreement with ASTA and the companies are studies related to the patent-protected genetics of the plant itself, such as breeding, reverse gene engineering, and modifications to the genetic traits.
Universities must still negotiate terms of the ARLs with each company. Each company remains free to decide how fully it will adopt the principles. A single “non-player,” the scientists wrote last month, could still prevent comparative studies or restrict entire categories of research. A divide already exists between those companies that will allow scientists to develop insect-resistant colonies for research purposes and those that will not.
“The agreement is broad and vague,” says Gurian-Sherman. “It’s voluntary, and there’s no meaningful enforcement. I’m concerned that industry will allow scientists it favors to have seeds — which in itself will be some improvement — but that scientists industry is wary of will still have problems getting those seeds.”
The result, he said, may be the illusion that research is now open to all, while creating a divide among scientists and the dilution of science on transgenic crops.
For instance, he points out that conducting experiments that test the yields provided by GM crops against yields using the original non-GM variety, or against crops grown using sustainable farming methods, will remain difficult. In a report for the Union of Concerned Scientists, Gurian-Sherman recently questioned the validity of industry claims that increased crop yields are the result of increased planting of GM crops. Improvements made by conventional breeding, he says, have had more effect on yield than any engineered genes.
“That a company with an interest in the outcome of a study should make itself arbiter of what’s good science and what’s not good science, I find offensive as a matter of principle,” says Gurian-Sherman. “The scientific process is much more subtle than that.”
Benbrook, too, remains unconvinced that the agreement will alter the research landscape.
“If you don’t expect to still face vigorous challenges to the quality of your science,” he says, “you’re just naïve.”
Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, said the ASTA agreement, even if implemented, affects only already commercialized crops. It’s vital, he says, to perform studies on GM seeds before they receive federal approval, because once a crop is approved it’s almost impossible to get it pulled from the market.
Despite these concerns, Cornell’s Shields is willing to see what happens as, over the next months, agreements are brokered between companies and universities.
“If the companies relinquish their gatekeeper role, if they don’t decide to pick and choose who they want to negotiate with, if I publish a paper they don’t like and I don’t become a ‘bad scientist,’” then, he says, he’ll be optimistic.
As for his named and unnamed cohorts?
“We’re scientists,” he says. “We like to be left alone. Right now it’s spring and we’re just thinking of getting out into the fields.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bruce Stutz writes on science, nature, and the environment. A former editor-in-chief of Natural History, he is a contributing editor to OnEarth. He has written for the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, Discover and Audubon. He is the author of Natural Lives, Modern Times and Chasing Spring, An American Journey Through a Changing Season.
Originally published July 1, 2010