About a week ago, The New York Times ran a brief interview with Nina V. Federoff, official “science and technology adviser” to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Not surprisingly, Condoleeza Rice’s science czar has a special place in her heart for genetically modified organisms. In the Times interview, Federoff defends GMOs:
There’s almost no food that isn’t genetically modified. Genetic modification is the basis of all evolution…. The paradox is that now that we’ve invented techniques that introduce just one gene without disturbing the rest, some people think that’s terrible.
Right; GMOs merely mimic nature, and are thus no different than any other organisms. But if that’s true, then why do GMOs require such draconian intellectual property protection? Why should Monsanto be able to enforce patent claims on, say, Round Up Ready soybean seeds?
Perhaps Federoff is pushing an open-source approach to GMOs — the idea that a handful of of companies shouldn’t be able to lock up ownership of globe’s most widely planted seeds. But given her corporate affiliations — which the Times didn’t see fit to divulge — that’s doubtful.
On taking the job at State in 2007, Federoff stepped down from her post on the “scientific advisory board” of Evogene, an Israeli agriculture-biotech firm. She had held the post for five years. What does Evogene do? According to the company’s “about us” page, it’s “geared toward developing improved plants for the agriculture and biofuel industries through the use of plant genomics.”
And that means working with the very few companies that control the GMO-seed business:
A number of improved plant traits are in relatively advanced stages of development through deals and collaborations with world leading companies, such as Monsanto Company, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Bayer CropScience, Syngenta and other [sic].
At the same time, Federoff was also serving on the board of Sigma-Aldrich, a transnational biotechnology company. According to its “about us” page, Sigma-Aldrich’s “biochemical and organic chemical products and kits are used in scientific and genomic research, biotechnology, pharmaceutical development, the diagnosis of disease and as key components in pharmaceutical and other high technology manufacturing.” In other words, like Evogene, Sigma-Aldrich provides services to the big ag-biotech companies.
At gets up to all manner of dodgy stuff, like projects to “develop cell-lines and transgenic animals that have targeted modifications in a specified gene in a specified species.”
In this day and age, it seems perfectly natural that U.S. ag-development policy should be dominated by the agenda of such companies. Let’s hope that changes soon.