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Myth: Biotech Companies Block Independent Research

GMO Soybeans

The mantra from the anti-GMO activists for a long, long time has been that there is no scientific studies on biotechnology. If there are no studies then they cannot possibly be safe. But that old argument doesn’t really hold any water and, more than ever, it’s easier to show people that this is not true. For example, Biofortified has the largest online database of GMO studies available, including studies that were done independently of the biotech companies. ( I previously wrote about this in my article “Just Ignore Those 2,000+ Studies Showing GMOs are Safe!“).

So, if people catch on that there really are lots of studies done on GMOs, the only option left is to attack the credibility of that information. Some anti-GMO folks do this by trotting out this article from 2009, which seems to suggest that biotech companies did not allow independent scientists conduct any studies on new biotech crops.

Let’s be clear: the biotech industry has never prohibited scientists from doing independent studies on their seeds.

But there was some confusion.

Prior to 2009, biotech companies wanted the scientists to agree to a couple standards to protect their product and technology. As you know, whenever a farmer purchases a bag of Round-Up Ready Corn (or any other biotech product), they generally have to sign what is known as a technology agreement. The agreement basically says they won’t do anything to hurt the company’s patent rights on the genetically modified technology. Independent research labs, including scientists at universities, were also asked to sign such an agreement and needed permission by the biotech companies to conduct the experiments.

In 2009, a group of scientists anonymously wrote to the EPA and asked for a little help. They wanted more access to the seeds for research and more freedom to conduct that research. It wasn’t that they were opposed to genetic modification or wanted to halt the technology – they just wanted to conduct more testing on it.

So the scientists and the biotech execs all sat down in a room on the campus of Iowa University and had a little talk.

As it turns out, the confusion was coming from some of the legalese. Although the scientists were absolutely allowed to conduct the research, they weren’t lawyers and didn’t necessarily understand all parts of the contracts or technology agreements they had to sign. Understandably, those legal terms made some of them a little hesitant to take on such projects.

The end result was a list of principals the universities and biotech companies agreed to so that all sides were on the same page. At the end of the meeting, both biotech companies and scientists came to a list of principals. In sum:

Those principles made explicit an industry commitment to allow independent scientists to do any sort of research they wanted with commercially available seeds, as long as they weren’t trying to pirate the technology, and as long as they don’t sell or release the seeds into the wild afterward.

(Source: Grist.) You can read those principal and objectives here. Biotech companies – both large and small – have switched their approach by entering into agreements with the university as a whole, not with just the scientists conducting the studies. That allows the legal expertise at the university to look over the agreements and gives the scientists a bit more autonomy. Many land-grant universities focused on agriculture have entered into these agreements.

Oh, and one point for the record – Monsanto’s stance:

As a result, Monsanto introduced the blanket agreement, which allows university scientists to work with Monsanto’s commercial seed products without contacting the company or signing a separate contract. This blanket agreement – the Academic Research License (ARL) – enables academic researchers to do research with commercialized products with as few constraints as possible. ARLs are in place with all major agriculturally-focused US universities – about 100 in total.

You can read more about Monsanto’s policy here.

At the end of the day, the reason there aren’t more independent studies has nothing to with whether or not the biotech companies would allow scientists to conduct studies. They were encouraged to do so! After all, each of these companies has to prove to the EPA, FDA, and USDA that their genetically modified seeds are safe. It can cost millions of dollars to get through the “deregulation” process. Why not allow others to bear the burden of those costs?

Which is precisely one reason that perhaps more independent testing wasn’t done: the cost. Elson Shields was one of the scientists that wrote the EPA about this issue back in 2009. Shields is a corn-insect scientist over at Cornell University. When asked by Grist why more independent studies weren’t usually done, Shields admitted it fell back to funding. He said:

“In my 30 years as a public scientist, there’s been a dramatic erosion of public funding. And that makes science more dependent on private funding. If I want to study something, I have to figure out who I can BS into giving me enough money. And these days everyone wants to invest in a sure thing. The preliminary stuff, the interesting stuff, competitive funding will never pay for it.”

(Source: Grist.) So, really, public scientists just don’t have the cash to conduct countless studies on the same topic. That’s why we consider scientific studies that have been conducted by the biotech companies when the company is attempting to deregulate a new biotech seed. Thankfully, we can look at those particular studies and determine how scientifically reliable they are based on scientific principals.

There is no doubt a lot of scientific evidence available! The scientific evidence – either conducted by an industry member or by an independent scientist – clearly demonstrates that GMOs are safe for humans and the environment.

And now we can stop pretending that biotech companies block scientists from doing the research that proves it.

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