Corporate Control of Food (February 22, 2009) Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC (February 22, 2009).

The geneticists and biotechnologists who are ‘using’ the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Study-Week in May 2009 to demand reduction in the regulatory regimes appear to be living in a parallel universe from many other crop scientists.

Nowhere is there better evidence of this, than in the introduction to the paper for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Study-Week, “Transgenic Plants for Food Security in the Context of Development,” written by Dr.  Potrykus   In Dr. Potrykus world just about everyone is conspiring against GMOs. He claims that the current “regulatory regime (established without any scientific justification) prevents using the technology to the benefit of the poor.”  He also believes that the (negative) “political climate surrounding GMOs which has spread from Europe to the rest of the world.”  has led to “GMO-over-regulation which makes the use of GMOs for the public sector inaccessible for cost and time reasons.” Finally, he states that there is “financial support from governments to professional anti-GMO lobby groups.”  No one appears have told him that GM crops are being produced by transnational corporations such as Monsanto and Syngenta who have powerful political allies in Washington, Brussels and every capital city in the world,

A very different scenario is painted by the journalist Andrew Pollack in an article in The New York Times,(Feb. 19th 2009) where 26. scientists write that biotechnology seed companies are thwarting research.[1] They are accusing biotech companies of preventing university scientists from fully researching the effectiveness and environmental impact of GM crops. “No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions,” the scientists wrote in a statement submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. The (U.S) E.P.A. is seeking public comments for scientific meetings it will hold next week on biotech crops.

These 26 corn insect specialists have withheld their names because they fear being cut off from research grants by the companies. The problem, according to the scientists is that farmers and other buyers of genetically engineered seeds have to sign an agreement meant to ensure that growers honour company patent rights and environmental regulations.  These agreements also prohibit growing the crops for research purposes.

While the university scientists can freely buy pesticides or conventional seeds for their research, they cannot do that with genetically engineered seeds. Instead, they must seek permission from the biotech corporation. companies.  At times permission is denied.  On other occasions the company insists on reviewing any findings before they can be published.

One scientists, Ken Ostlie, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota, who has signed the statement told the author, “If a company can control the research that appears in the public domain, they can reduce the potential negatives that can come out of any research.”

These scientists are not opposed to GM technology.  “Rather, they say, the industry’s chokehold on research means that they cannot supply some information to farmers about how best to grow the crops. And, they say, the data being provided to government regulators is being “unduly limited.””

William S. Niebur, the vice president in charge of crop research at the biotech company Du Pont defended his company’s policies on the grounds that they were following government regulations.  Monsanto and Syngenta spokespersons made similar robust defense of their policies.

However E.P.A. spokesman, Dale Kemery, said on February 17th 2009, that the government required only management of the crops’ insect resistance and that any other contractual restrictions were put in place by the companies.

Mark A. Boetel, associate professor of entomology at North Dakota State University, said that before genetically engineered sugar beet seeds were sold to farmers for the first time last year, he wanted to test how the crop would react to an insecticide treatment. But the university could not come to an agreement with Monsanto and Syngenta, the companies responsible,  over issues such as the right to publish research findings.

One of the most pernicious developments in recent years was highlighted by Dr. Shields of Cornell who points out that financing for agricultural research had gradually shifted from the public sector to the private sector. That makes many scientists at universities dependent on financing or technical co-operation from the big seed companies. “People are afraid of being blacklisted,” he said. “If your sole job is to work on corn insects and you need the latest corn varieties and the companies decide not to give it to you, you can’t do your job.”

This is the real world of corporate control of crop research, not the fanciful world being portrayed by Dr. Potrykus.


[1] Andrew Pollack, New York Times, February 19 2009. By Andrew Pollack.
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/20/business/20crop.html?_r=3

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