Last year the New York Times publicized an eye-opening letter from university scientists who say biotech companies prevent research on the effectiveness and environmental impacts of GE crops.More than two dozen scientists representing 17 corn-producing states –most of whom remained anonymous in the public comment to the Environmental Protection Agency — explained, “No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions.” The scientists said, for example, that research involving GE crops is subject to the patent holder’s approval before publishing. The letter was a courageous move, to be sure.
Thankfully some of these scientists are no longer speaking anonymously, as reported by Yale Environment 360. Apparently the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) responded to this letter by meeting with scientists and making changes to licensing contracts– technology agreements — to relieve researchers’ concerns. But some scientists are still skeptical and wonder if the agreements will really change “a research environment rife with obstructions and suspicion.” Some of the shortcomings of the new agreement include: studies related to patent-protected genetics are not included, universities must still negotiate terms with each company, and each company remains free to decide how fully it will adopt the principles. It’s all voluntary and only covers crops that have already been commercialized — not crops in the experimental stage.
We need to re-invest in our public institutions so that scientists aren’t beholden to biotech firms who put shareholder interests before the public good. Speaking honestly about the difficult research landscape is an important start. But we all need to speak up. We can begin by asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reinvigorate public breeding programs to ensure that research is conducted in an open and honest way.