GM Free Cymru

US scientists complain about GM research blocking Biotech companies limiting independent GM analysis

JACQUI FATKA Farm Weekly, 16 March 2009

There is an increasing area of transgenic crops being grown in the United States, but university researchers sometimes find themselves unable to provide unbiased feedback to both regulatory agencies and growers on the efficacy and environmental impact of specific biotech events.

The issue came to light recently when 24 leading corn insect scientists working at public research institutions in 17 corn-producing states sent a statement to the Environmental Protection Agency saying that data flowing to an EPA Scientific Advisory Panel from the public sector is "unduly limited".

All those who signed the statement support the use of biotechnology.

At the centre of the scientists' concerns are technology/stewardship agreements required for the purchase of genetically modified seed that explicitly prohibit research.

"These agreements inhibit public scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good unless the research is approved by industry," according to the statement.

"As a result of restricted access, no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology, its performance, its management implications, IRM (insect resistance management) and its interactions with insect biology."

Unlike other inputs such as pesticides or conventional seeds, scientists cannot go through regular commercial channels to purchase a bag of biotech seed and do independent research, explained Elson Shields, professor and extension entomologist at Cornell University and one of the scientists who signed the statement.

Professor Shields said an array of other problems researchers have faced include companies refusing to approve data found in trials for publication and threatening lawsuits if a scientist wants to publish without company approval.

Frequently, companies have tried to change research protocols to better suit information they want released.

"That kind of control has the potential to bias research. We, as scientists, are fiercely protective of our reputation of being unbiased," Shields said.

Ken Ostlie, professor and extension entomologist at the University of Minnesota, experienced a company restriction firsthand this year when he attempted to examine how transgenic corn events fared in combating northern corn rootworm.

With most of the research directed at western corn rootworm, it was important to explore transgenic corn impacts on northern corn rootworm in his state.

In 2007, he conducted the studies with permission from three companies.

In 2008, he said Syngenta withdrew its permission to repeat the study two weeks after corn planting began, saying it didn't need additional performance data on the events.

"I suspect that this was a knee-jerk response to slightly poorer performance data generated in areas with western corn rootworm," Ostlie said.

The threat of industry blacklisting is real to researchers.

Scientists in the early years of their career were encouraged not to sign the petition.

"Companies hold the ultimate trump card," Ostlie said.

They can effectively shut down research by individual scientists, resulting in career suicide for young faculty who must publish in order to achieve promotion and tenure.

Future moves

Regarding the legal constraints of preventing public scientists from conducting research, agribusiness and grower groups have been mostly surprised that scientists were unable to pursue their normal research role in exploring new technologies and how best to use them.

One of the financial resources for Ostlie's research was the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council.

When he told the group a company pulled out of the study, the council was offended and "did not like the idea that research they wanted to see done was being torted," he said.

Christian Krupke, an assistant professor at Purdue University, added that pest insects developing resistance is always a concern with transgenic plants.

"There should be some level of concern that, without maximising the numbers of researchers who can ask questions - providing innovative ideas to keep these products durable, profitable and based on the best science - we run the risk of making mistakes and missing opportunities to do things better," Krupke said.

Chris DiFonzo, field crop entomologist for Michigan State University, added that the requirements may be especially restrictive for university researchers who do not traditionally work with companies, such as those working on ecology or environmental impacts.

The public statement to EPA was designed to make the agency aware that companies have the ability to "spoon feed EPA any data they would like" because of the possibility that companies can control data, Ostlie said.

Any company can change its policy, Ostlie said.

If things aren't resolved, political pressure could be put on EPA.

The scientists are urging EPA "to require registrants to remove the prohibition on research on their products and specifically allow research by public-sector scientists".

This could easily be done without infringing on companies' intellectual property rights, the scientists said.

The final resort could be approaching legislators about changing or introducing language in a bill that would safeguard public scientists' right to use biotech seeds for research purposes.

"Although this has been portrayed as an 'industry versus researchers' issue, that is not the case at all. The vast majority of our interactions with industry have been very positive," Krupke said.

"We just think that there must be a better way of including researchers in the critical evaluation of these products earlier in the process.

"This would have long-term benefits for industry, researchers and, most importantly, the public and end users of these technologies."