Recently I wrote about the dwindling faith the American people seem to have in science, seemingly choosing to either ignore or disregard the latest research on global warming. Why has science lost its place in the hearts and minds of America? Has the media been a culprit? Did the Bush administration dismiss one too many scientific reports? But now, a recent article leaves me wondering if science has not only taken a backseat to American thoughts, but a backseat to industry influence as well.
In Thursday’s New York Times, Andrew Pollack reported on how crop scientists throughout the country have been unable to perform adequate testing and research on biotech crops, because of the strong hand of biotechnology companies. Pollack was likely alerted to the story after a group of 26 corn insect scientists from 16 different states anonymously submitted a statement to the EPA on a docket regarding the evaluation of insect resistance risks with a brand of Pioneer Hi-Bred biotech corn. In their statement the scientists noted that they chose to remain anonymous because “virtually all of us require cooperation from industry at some level to conduct our research.”
Remaining anonymous allowed the scientists to fully express their real concern with biotech crop research controlled by the industry through technology and stewardship agreements, required to be signed for the purchase of genetically modified seeds. Such agreements are the same that farmers must sign before purchasing seeds, which prevent them from replanting seeds or thus risk legal action. The scientist coalition noted that such agreements “explicitly prohibit research” and “inhibit public scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good unless the research is approved by industry.” The effects were clearly stated — “no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology.” Yet the scientific research community has not always been this way. Before patents were granted for life forms, the Plant Variety Protection Act passed by Congress in 1970 allowed farmers to save and replant protected seeds and gave scientists the right to research protected varieties.
The problem lies in the control that biotech companies have over seeds, given to them by patent rights. Effectively, patent protection allows a company to determine who can purchase its product and for what purpose. Pollack’s article highlights this problem and details how biotech companies can freely deny permission for seed requests and even review scientific findings before they are published. In an arena where scientific funding has notably dwindled from the public sector, land-grant universities and scientists have increasingly relied on private funding for their research. The effect of this influence is now all too clear. Elson J. Shields, a professor of entomology at Cornell, out it bluntly: “People are afraid of being blacklisted.”
The Times article is reflective of a larger ongoing problem. In 2002 Nature published an article about an Ohio State University professor who was conducting research on biotech sunflowers. After her initial research indicated that the seed would allow wild sunflowers to proliferate as weeds, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Dow AgroSciences refused to grant her permission to use the seed for follow up studies. Something similar happened to William Meredith, a USDA geneticist, in the late 1990s when Monsanto was trying to bring its biotech cotton to market. Meredith was denied access to the seeds, since in order to obtain them he would have had to sign an agreement with Monsanto agreeing not to test them.
To fully understand how alarming the situation is, consider how biotech crops and foods make their way from lab to field to plate in the United States. The USDA does not conduct its own tests on biotech crop varieties when deregulating and approving them for planting in the United States. Instead, it relies on industry studies and data to access their safety on the environment and human health.
But if the industry is preventing real research from entering the scientific community, how much should we trust industry biotech studies? A 2003 study published in the journal Nutrition and Health examined peer-reviewed studies of animals fed genetically-engineered foods. Of the 10 studies identified, the five carried out in collaboration with the industry found no adverse health effects. But of the five independent studies, all found adverse effects after feeding lab animals genetically engineered food for only 10 to 14 days.
This latest declaration from a variety of scientists who work in biotech research should be yet another red flag about the biotech industry. As Upton Sinclair famously noted a century ago, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” So long as our public universities and scientists continue to be heavily funded by industry interests, we may continue to see inadequate environmental and human health studies about biotech crops. And so long as the U.S. government continues to rely on the industry to provide them with data, the potential adverse side effects of biotech crops will likely remain silent.