Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Biotech Companies "Thwart Scientific Research"

Last week, Andrew Pollack of the New York Times reported on a statement submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency by a group of 26 scientists engaged in biotechnology crop research. The statement was submitted by "26 leading corn insect scientists working at public research institutions located in 16 corn producing states." However, individual names were not listed "because virtually all of us require cooperation from industry at some level to conduct our research."

The New York Times article, Crop Scientists Say Biotechnology Seed Companies Are Thwarting Research, is based on the statement and on interviews with some of the scientists that were willing to talk publicly. They allege that the biotechnology companies use their patent protection and licensing agreements to prevent independent research on their products. Researchers must seek permission from the seed companies before they are allowed to conduct their research, and the scientists allege that sometimes "permission is denied or the company insists on reviewing any findings before they can be published."
“No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions,” the scientists wrote in a statement submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency.
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Such agreements have long been a problem, the scientists said, but they are going public now because frustration has been building.

“If a company can control the research that appears in the public domain, they can reduce the potential negatives that can come out of any research,” said Ken Ostlie, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota, who was one of the scientists who had signed the statement.

What is striking is that the scientists issuing the protest, who are mainly from land-grant universities with big agricultural programs, say they are not opposed to the technology. Rather, they say, the industry’s chokehold on research means that they cannot supply some information to farmers about how best to grow the crops. And, they say, the data being provided to government regulators is being “unduly limited.”

The companies “have the potential to launder the data, the information that is submitted to E.P.A.,” said Elson J. Shields, a professor of entomology at Cornell.
The scientists provided information to the Times about specific studies that were stopped because permission was withdrawn and studies that could not be undertaken because permission could not be obtained.
Dr. Shields of Cornell said financing for agricultural research had gradually shifted from the public sector to the private sector. That makes many scientists at universities dependent on financing or technical cooperation from the big seed companies.

“People are afraid of being blacklisted,” he said. “If your sole job is to work on corn insects and you need the latest corn varieties and the companies decide not to give it to you, you can’t do your job.”