A seedy restriction on research

Leafing though the latest Scientific American, I am struck by an editorial attacking the agricultural biotechnology industry. Like the FT, SciAm believes genetically modified crops, used wisely, can improve farm productivity and reduce pollution – but the magazine is furious with their producers for allegedly stifling independent research into their products.

The problem is that Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta and the rest of the agbio industry impose user agreements that explicitly forbid the use of the seeds for any independent research. Under the threat of litigation, scientists cannot test a seed to explore the different conditions under which it thrives or fails.

They cannot compare seeds from one company against those from another company. And perhaps most importantly, they cannot examine whether the genetically modified crops lead to unintended environmental side effects. Only studies approved by the seed companies see the light of a peer-reviewed journal.

The issue has so far received remarkably little public attention. Insect scientists are beginning to speak out against the restriction but many are afraid to do so because they rely on the companies to provide seeds for their research, SciAm says.

Imagine pharmaceutical companies trying to prevent medical researchers comparing patented drugs or investigating their side-effects – it’s unthinkable. Yet scientists cannot independently examine raw materials in the food supply or investigate plants that cover a lot of rural America.

SciAm calls on the agbio companies to remove immediately the research restriction from their end-user agreements. And it says the US Environmental Protection Agency should require, as a condition of approving new seeds, that independent researchers have unfettered access to all products on the market. As the magazine’s editors say, “the agricultural revolution is too important to keep locked behind closed doors.”

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.

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