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August 9, 2009
Scientists urge better seed access
Scientists and advocates are sounding the alarm on a practice of high-tech seed producers: limiting the independent research that can be done on those seeds.
Since their introduction in the 1990s, genetically modified seeds -- those altered with foreign genetic material to give them special characteristics -- have become an indelible part of the agricultural landscape.
Thanks to a 1980 Supreme Court decision, genetically modified organisms can be patented. And the biotech seed companies -- including the top three seed producers, Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta -- require a signed user agreement to purchase their seeds.
Among the stipulations of the agreements is a prohibition on independent research, which prevents public-sector scientists from conducting head-to-head comparisons or environmental and health studies of genetically modified seeds.
Earlier this year, a group of 24 corn insect scientists from public research institutions submitted a comment to the Environmental Protection Agency, urging regulators to require the seed companies to allow research on their products.
"As a result of restricted access, no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions regarding the technology," wrote the scientists, who withheld their names "because virtually all of us require cooperation from industry at some level to conduct our research."
The magazine Scientific American published an editorial this month highlighting the practice and calling on the EPA to require access to new seeds for independent researchers.
"When scientists are prevented from examining the raw ingredients in our nation's food supply or from testing the plant material that covers a large portion of the country's agricultural land, the restrictions on free inquiry become dangerous," the magazine's editors wrote.
Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Food Safety, said the research restrictions point to the larger issue of the shrinking role of the public sector in agricultural research.
Freese said that in previous decades, universities provided many of the seeds for farmers. "What we've seen with biotech is that those public sector breeding programs are almost defunct," he said.
The seed companies argue they need protection for the massive investment they make in seed technologies. Paul Schickler, president of DuPont's seed producer, Pioneer Hi-Bred, said the company's genetics and technology are its "critical resources," and the company needs to protect trade secrets.
Pioneer supports public research institutions and collaborates closely with researchers, Schickler said.
"At the same time, we have to have the appropriate mechanisms in place to protect our investments," he said.