GM Free Cymru

Corporate Monopoly of Science

Prof Peter Saunders

ISIS Report 08/04/09

Corporations are aiming for an absolute stranglehold on scientific research and the flow of scientific information; that’s why patents on GM crops should be abolished. Prof. Peter Saunders

Scientists blocked from independent research on GM crops

As you may already know, you can’t just go into a store and buy genetically modified (GM) seeds. You have to sign an agreement with the company that produced them, and one of the conditions is that you may not save the seeds from your harvest. Anyone growing GM crops has to buy seeds from the company every year, which is a problem for all farmers, but especially for those in the Third World; as Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser’s epic battle with Monsanto so clearly brings home to us [1] (Who Owns Life, Not Monsanto? SiS 42).

What is less well known is that the agreements also prohibit you from using the seeds for research. That may not matter to most farmers, but it is important because it means that research into GM crops can be done only by the biotech companies or with their approval. If they don’t want a particular piece of research carried out, they can refuse permission to use their seeds. Even when they have given permission, if they don’t like the way the research is turning out they can stop it, or prevent the results from being published. Consequently, important decisions on GM crops and all GM organisms (GMOs) are increasingly based on evidence selected by the companies to put them and their products in the best possible light.

That’s why when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) invited comments from the public in advance of two meetings on GM crops it was holding earlier this year, twenty six scientists submitted a statement protesting the “technology/stewardship agreements” they have to sign, which inhibit them from doing research for the public good. [2] As a result, “no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology”. The full statement is reproduced in the Box.

Scientists’ Statement to US EPA

Docket EPA-HQ-OPP-2008-0836

The following statement has been submitted by 26 leading corn insect scientists working at public research institutions located in 16 corn producing states. All of the scientists have been active participants of the Regional Research Projects NCCC-46 "Development, Optimization, and Delivery of Management Strategies for Corn Rootworms and Other Below-ground Insect Pests of Maize" and/or related projects with corn insect pests. The statement may be applicable to all EPA decisions on PIPs, not just for the current SAP. It should not be interpreted that the actions and opinions of these 26 scientists represent those of the entire group of scientists participating in NCCC-46. The names of the scientists have been withheld from the public docket because virtually all of us require cooperation from industry at some level to conduct our research.


"Technology/stewardship agreements required for the purchase of genetically modified seed 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. 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, and its interactions with insect biology. Consequently, data flowing to an EPA Scientific Advisory Panel from the public sector is unduly limited."

All the scientists have been active researchers into corn insect pests, and many of them are in favour of GM crops, but they are very concerned about the restrictions placed on them by the industry that effectively stop independent research, and the resulting bias in the evidence being presented to the EPA and other regulatory agencies. This does not surprise those of us who have been complaining about the lack of independent research and regulators that routinely ignore and dismiss all evidence of hazards [3] (see GM Food Nightmare Unfolding in the Regulatory Sham, ISIS Scientific Publication).

Anonymous protest for fear of losing their job

Significantly, the submission to the EPA was made anonymously. Andrew Pollack, the NY Times journalist who broke the story to the public in February 2009 [4], interviewed many of the scientists and was allowed to reveal some of their identities, but many of those who felt strongly enough to want the comments made were not willing to put their careers on the line by letting the biotech industry know who they were. As Elson Shields, an entomologist from Cornell explained: “People are afraid of being blacklisted. If your sole job is to work on corn insects and you need the latest varieties and the companies decide not to give it to you, you can’t do your job.”

The three companies Pollack contacted, Monsanto, Syngenta and Pioneer, told him that the restrictions were necessary to protect their relationship with government agencies. But when Pollack asked an EPA spokesman about this, he was told that the government only requires management of the crops’ insect resistance. Any other conditions were down to the companies; they have nothing to do with the government.

The other excuse was that companies have to protect their intellectual property. This is no more convincing than the first one, because as the result of intensive lobbying by the biotech industry, GM crops are protected by patents, rather than the less restrictive breeders’ rights that apply to other crops. The whole point of a patent is that the inventor makes the idea public and, in return, is given an exclusive right to it for a period of time, usually 20 years. To take out a patent and also insist on keeping an invention secret is to want to have it both ways, which is no more than what we have come to expect from an industry that claims genetic engineering is so novel that its products must be patentable and at the same time so conventional that there is no need to test GM crops for safety.

Why restrict scientific research?

What sort of research can it be that the companies are anxious to prevent? There seem to be two kinds they could have in mind. On the one hand, someone might want to modify an existing GM crop either by conventional breeding or by more genetic engineering. If they succeeded, however, they would not be able to grow the crop commercially or market the seeds without negotiating a licence with the owner of the patent and paying an agreed royalty. But this is precisely how patenting is supposed to work, and it’s hard to see why the biotech companies should object to it. In any case, if you hold a patent you are able to licence someone else to use your innovation but you are not obliged to.

The other possibility is research designed specifically to learn more about the crop. This includes testing for health and safety or environmental impact, or to see if it really does what is claimed; for instance, whether an insect-resistant corn actually reduces the amount of pesticide that has to be applied. It also includes comparison of the crop with competitors, either GM or conventional, or with other methods of farming, such as intercropping, or integrated pest management. The monopoly that the companies want to maintain and that is not already protected by their patents is on the information that will be available to regulators and farmers when they take crucial decisions about GM crops.

It has been shown that published research on pharmaceuticals is far more likely to give positive results if it was funded by the industry [5]. The same has been found for research into nutrition [6]. This can happen in many ways, though the choice and design of the experiments, through the selection of data, through the decision not to publish the results of experiments that point in the wrong direction, and so on. That makes it absolutely essential that there be independent scientists actively carrying out research in those areas, and all the more so in biotechnology.

The biotech industry already has a very great influence on research. More and more is being done in the private sector, and much of what is done in universities depends on funding from industry. Even the research councils are being told to concentrate their grants on work that will lead to “wealth creation”, by which is meant the sort of research that industry wants done. Restricting the use of their seeds gives the biotech companies a veto on any research they cannot block through their control of funding. They are aiming for nothing less than an absolute stranglehold on scientific research and on the flow research information.

Earlier in the same month, a group calling itself “Sense About Science” in the UK issued a ‘guide’, Making Sense of GM, to help overcome “misconceptions” that have prevent the public from accepting GM crops and all the benefits they will bring. What it failed to mention was the industrial affiliations of some of the scientists involved. Worse yet, Private Eye revealed that it was sent an earlier draft of the guide, which listed Andrew Cockburn as one of the authors that was removed in the published version. Cockburn is none other than Monsanto’s former director of scientific affairs [7]

Time to abolish patents on GM crops

That 26 scientists felt it necessary to write to the EPA shows how worried they are about what is happening; and how worried the rest of us should be too. If nothing is done, then when regulatory agencies take decisions about health and the environment, when farmers want to know what are the best seeds for them to plant and what is the best way of growing their crops, and when the rest of us want to know what lies in store for the world’s food supply, the only information we will have will be what the industry and its friends choose to give us. There will be no independent research to draw on.

Governments should abolish patents on GM crops and replace them by the same breeders’ rights that apply to other crops. This would remove in one stroke the oppressive regime to which farmers have been subjected; even farmers who have chosen not to grow GM crops are in constant fear of being accused of patent infringement when their crops become contaminated with the patented GM variety [1]. Furthermore, there was never a case for awarding patents to gene sequences [8] (Why Biotech Patents Are Patently Absurd); and all the more so in view of recent findings [9] that have completely invalidated the concept of gene on which the patents were granted. The patents were based on a supposed gene function attached to a DNA sequence. But as genes are now found to exist in bits interweaving with other genes, so are functions. Multiple DNA sequences may serve the same function, and conversely the same DNA sequence can have different functions. And there is no rational basis on which these patents could be defended.

If governments cannot bring themselves to abolish patents on GM crops and genes, even now that they have seen how the biotech corporations mean to abuse the privilege of being allowed to patent them, then at the very least they must insist that the seeds be made available for research. ----------------------------------


1. Burcher S. Who owns life, not Monsanto? Science in Society 42 (to appear).

2. US EPA Docket EPA-HQ-OPP-2008-0836. Available at component/main?main=DocumentDetail&o=090000648084de39

3. Ho, MW, J Cummins and PT Saunders. GM food nightmare unfolding in the regulatory sham. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 19 (2007) 66-77. Available at

4. Pollock, A.. Crop scientists say biotechnology seed companies are thwarting research. New York Times, 20 February 2009. Available at

5. See for example Lexchin. J, LA Bero, B Djulbegovic and O Clark (2003). Pharmaceutical industry sponsorship and research outcome and quality: systematic review. British Medical Journal 326, 1167-1170.

6. Lesser, LI, CB Ebbeling, M Goozner, D Wypij and DS Ludwig. Relationship between funding source and conclusion among nutrition- related scientific articles. PLoS Medicine 4(1): e5 2007. doi: 10.1371/ journal.pmed.0040005

7. Books and Bookmen, Private Eye, No.1232, p. 26, 20 March-2 April, 2009.

8. Ho MW. Why biotech patents are patently absurd. Journal of Intellectual Property Rights 2002, 7, 151-165.

9. ENCODE Project Consortium. Identification and analysis of functional elements in 1% of the human genome by the ENCODE pilot project. Nature 2007, 447, 799-816.