Several years ago I was approached by a colleague who wanted to do preliminary experiments on translocation of the herbicide glyphosate into flowers of Roundup Ready soybeans. He needed a few handfuls of a named variety of seed. Since I live in soybean country he figured I might know a farmer willing to part with such a small quantity. "Sure", I said, "No problem."
It was, I discovered, a big problem. As part of the technology agreement that farmers sign when they purchase Roundup Ready soybeans, they "...may NOT plant and may not transfer to others for planting any Seed for crop breeding, research, or generation of herbicide registration data."1
This was a surprise to me. I was quite familiar with prohibitions on farmers replanting seeds of genetically engineered crops, a controversial innovation of Monsanto's2 that they vigorously enforce and which has been adopted by other companies as well.3 But as I scientist, I bridled at being prohibited from simply walking into a store or farmer's shed and leaving with material to study one of the most common plants in my environment. After all, we are swimming in these Roundup Ready soybeans here in Indiana. Every fourth acre of the state is planted in them. Seeds fall out of trucks, volunteer in subsequent crops, and are piled high in grain elevators along our county roads. Soybeans, soybeans everywhere, and not a seed to study?
Legally, the only way to study Roundup Ready soybeans or any other genetically engineered crop, commercialized or not, is to go through the company that owns the patents. If the company is willing, it will offer researchers-or more likely today, their institutions - confidential agreements with the terms under which research can be conducted.
In other words, the companies that stand to profit or lose from the results are ultimately in control of who gets to do research and who doesn't. Some scientists who have labored under such contracts think that this restricted access gives the seed industry too much say in the kinds of research scientists do and the way their data are reported to the public, stating that "no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions" involving these crops.4,5,6
What, then, are tangible consequences of biotech companies holding the keys to research on the genetically engineered crops that surround us? From looking at the literature, it is inherently difficult to say that a specific study is missing or skewed because of such a policy. However, since learning about the "no research" clause, I've had opportunities to ask agricultural scientists about how this particular dependence on agribusiness has affected them.7
Some admitted to being put off of particular projects even before asking the company for a contract. They weren't affiliated with an institution that normally conducts agricultural research and thus weren't covered by a blanket agreement, or they belonged to an institution that could not accept the terms offered. One scientist didn't want to disclose her methods or theories for fear that her ideas would be pilfered at an early stage by company scientists who had more resources and experience with the system she wanted to study.
In fact, it seems that the superior resources of corporations compared with many academic labs have discouraged some graduate students from doing projects with genetically engineered crops. Students asking for research materials reported being told by company scientists that "we know everything there is to know about [whatever]," leaving them with the impression that it would be difficult to carve out a niche in competition with the "big guys." I've also heard of students being strongly encouraged to change direction when it appeared that their research was heading for a conclusion that was not in the company's interest. In one case, a student said he was offered a grant if he dropped his current project in favor of another one after his preliminary results pointed to an issue with crop performance.
Researchers who did persevere and in the end reported results that might damage the company's bottom line were sometimes refused further access to seeds or other materials. They also faced coordinated attacks on their published work, well beyond what most academics experience during the normal give and take of scientific critique. Often their work was discounted for deficiencies in methodology, such as lack of the most appropriate control plants or reagents, at the same time that they were denied access to these materials.
Other factors weigh against independent research in agriculture, of course. Public research in agriculture is influenced by private money and guidance at every level. For years, as public money has dwindled, grants and contracts from corporations have increased. So have industry-sponsored endowed chairs, graduate student fellowships, undergraduate teaching grants, internships, and other partnerships that give corporations more say, including having seats on university boards.8 I have argued that even public money for basic research is steered towards projects that will support agribusiness.9
It is a wonder that any truly independent studies of genetically engineered crops get done against the backdrop of all of these corporate influences. Some scientists rise to the challenge, but my sense is that many more find it too much of a hassle and decide to work on other issues.
Certainly, when I comb the scientific literature for impacts of particular genetically engineered crop systems I am dismayed at how few independent studies I find. This is especially true for impacts on non-target organisms, meaning all of us except weeds and pest insects. For example, recently I was searching for information about the levels of glyphosate in pollen and nectar of Roundup Ready crops in light of the crises honeybees and other pollinators are experiencing. I didn't find any relevant studies in the public domain.
Maybe if I had been able to send my colleague some Roundup Ready soybeans when he asked, we would know about glyphosate levels in pollen and nectar by now, and thus be better equipped to assess environmental impacts. And I wonder how many other studies are missing at least partly because of the impediments to free inquiry from patent-driven research restrictions.
I believe it is in the public's interest to bring seeds of genetically engineered crops back into the common sphere where they can be used freely in research. Although doing so won't remove all corporate influence from scientific studies, it is a concrete step in the right direction towards transparent, reliable information about these new and impactful technologies.
Martha L. Crouch, PhD, was a graduate student at Yale University studying the development of seeds and flowers when genes were first cloned. By the time she headed her own plant molecular biology lab at Indiana University, plant genes were being patented. Now she consults from her home in Bloomington, Indiana, on issues of biotechnology and agriculture for non-profit groups and law firms.
1. 2009 Monsanto Technology/Stewardship Agreement (Limited Use License)
2. Gorman ME, Simmonds J, Ofiesh C, Smith R, and Werhane PH (2001) Monsanto and Intellectual Property, In "Teaching Ethics, Fall 2001", University of Virginia Darden School Foundation, Charlottesville, VA. http://www.uvu.edu/ethics/seac/Monsanto%20and%20Intellectual%20Property.pdf; accessed 18 Feb 2013.
3. Center for Food Safety & Save Our Seeds (2013) Gene Giants vs. U.S. Farmers. http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Seed-Giants_final.pdf; accessed 18 Feb 2013
4. Waltz E (2009) Under wraps. Nature Biotechnology 27 (10): 880 - 882. http://www.emilywaltz.com/Biotech_crop_research_restrictions_Oct_2009.pdf, accessed 18 Feb 2013
5. Sappington TW, Ostlie KR, DiFonzo C, Hibbard BE, Kurpke CH, Porter P, Pueppke S, Shields EJ and Tollefson JJ (2010) Conducting public-sector research on commercialized transgenic seed. GM Crops 1 (2): 55 - 58. http://www.landesbioscience.com/journals/gmcrops/02SappingtonGMC1-2.pdf, accessed 18 Feb 2013
6. Stutz B (2010) Companies Put Restrictions on Research into GM Crops. Yale Environmnet 360. http://e360.yale.edu/content/print.msp?id=2273, accessed 18 Feb 2013
7. Understandably, the people who told me their experiences did so in confidence.
8. Food & Water Watch (2012) Public Research, Private Gain: Corporate Influence Over University Agricultural Research. http://documents.foodandwaterwatch.org/doc/PublicResearchPrivateGain.pdf, accessed 18 Feb 2013
9. Crouch ML (1991) The very structure of scientific research mitigates against developing products to help the environment, the poor, and the hungry. J. Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 4:151-158