By creating obstacles to independent research on its products, Monsanto makes it harder for farmers and policy makers to make informed decisions that can lead to more sustainable agriculture.
Good policy is impossible without good information. Smart choices about the role of biotechnology in agriculture will depend on how much we know about its costs, benefits, and risks.
The GE Research "Battlefield"—and the Need to Keep It Open
Research about biotechnology arouses passions on both sides of the issue. A September 2009 Nature article, aptly titled "Battlefield," tells the story of a Loyola University (Chicago) stream ecologist and her colleagues. Their 2007 study suggested that beneficial insects suffered negative effects from feeding on leaves and stalks of Monsanto’s insecticidal Bt corn. While many scientists voiced their support for the quality of the research in the study, others attacked it fiercely—in one case even leveling a charge of possible scientific misconduct.
While the Nature article is careful to note that there is no reason to assume that the criticisms were connected to Monsanto, the controversy points up the importance of further research on these crops, which will only happen if the company's seeds are freely available to independent researchers. With so much at stake, and axes to grind, it is vital to ensure that the makers of GE products are not the sole arbiters of what questions can be asked about those products, or who gets to answer them.
But multibillion-dollar agricultural corporations, including Monsanto, have fought independent research on their genetically engineered crops. They have often refused to provide independent scientists with seeds, or they've set restrictive conditions that severely limit research options.
In 2009, 26 academic entomologists wrote to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that because patents on engineered genes do not provide for independent non-commercial research, they could not perform adequate research on these crops. "No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions involving these crops," they wrote.
A Purdue University entomologist who signed the letter put it more succinctly to a reporter for a scientific journal: "Industry is completely driving the bus."
Keeping Decision Makers in the Dark
Independent research is needed to determine how well these crops work, how best to use them, their possible risks, and how they compare with alternatives such as classical breeding or ecologically based farming methods.
Without that research, farmers, policy makers, and research granting agencies are not able to make the most well-informed decisions possible. To the extent that those decisions would work toward improving sustainability, these research restrictions reduce our ability to move agriculture in a more sustainable direction.
Moving in the Right Direction—But Not Far Enough
Monsanto has attempted to take cover in a voluntary agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that gives the agency's agricultural scientists access to the company’s genetically engineered seeds for a wide range of research; Monsanto has also had agreements with some universities.
Several other seed companies are said to be negotiating voluntary deals with universities in the wake of the entomologists' letter to the EPA. And the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), a trade group of which Monsanto is a member, is also developing guidelines to improve access to new seeds.
These are positive steps, but they don't go far enough.
More Transparency Needed
For one thing, the deals and the trade association rules are not binding. The companies can back out of them. They are also opaque; the public really has no idea how far these deals go or how common they are. And what about scientists at research institutions that aren't party to voluntary agreements?
Moreover, few if any of the agreements guarantee opportunities for every kind of independent research. The Monsanto agreement with the USDA covers research into crop production practices, for example, but not research into issues such as the health risks of genetically engineered crops.
Ultimately, patent law needs to change to allow independent science to function as it needs to. Monsanto should back such a change in the law. Until then, it and other large seed companies should post a list of the agreements that have been made so far with research institutions and individual scientists, and the conditions of those agreements. Monsanto’s behavior to date suggests that it is not really serious about addressing this problem.