A battle is quietly being waged between the industry that produces genetically modified seeds and scientists trying to investigate the environmental impacts of engineered crops. Although companies such as Monsanto have recently given ground, researchers say these firms are still loath to allow independent analyses of their patented -- and profitable -- seeds.
In February 2009, frustrated by industry restrictions on independent research into genetically modified crops, two dozen scientists representing public research institutions in 17 corn-producing states told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the companies producing genetically modified (GM) seed "inhibit public scientists from pursuing their mandated role on behalf of the public good" and warned that industry influence had made independent analyses of transgenic crops impossible.
Unprepared for the scientists' public protest and the press accounts that followed it, the industry, through its American Seed Trade Association (ASTA), met with crop scientists. Late last year, ASTA agreed that, while still restricting research on engineered plant genes, it would allow researchers greater freedom to study the effects of GM food crops on soil, pests, and pesticide use, and to compare their yields and analyze their effects on the environment.
While many scientists expressed optimism about the agreement, questions remain over whether -- and how soon -- it will alter what has been a research environment rife with obstructions and suspicion.
Since the first GM crops were planted some 15 years ago, the companies that developed them have claimed broad control over their use. Farmers don't simply buy a bag of GM seed from Monsanto, Syngenta, or DuPont.
Scientists found their research ultimately subject to seed company approval.
Instead, they enter into a "Technology/Stewardship Agreement" with the company that developed it, the fine print of which lays out, among other things, the terms under which the seed can be used, where it can be grown, where it can be sold (many international governments do not allow the sale of GM crops or products made with them), and the brand of herbicides that can be used. This "bag-tag," as it's known, also specifically restricts any use of the seed for research.