Soybeans, corn, cotton and canola -- most of the acres planted in these crops in the United States are genetically altered. "Transgenic" seeds reduce the use of some insecticides. But herbicide use is higher, and respected experts argue that some genetically engineered crops may also pose serious health and environmental risks. The benefits of genetically engineered crops may be overstated.
We don't have the complete picture. That's no accident. Multibillion-dollar agricultural corporations, including Monsanto and Syngenta, have restricted 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.
This is legal. Under U.S. law, genetically engineered crops are patentable inventions. Companies have broad power over the use of any patented product, including who can study it and how.
Agricultural companies defend their stonewalling by saying that unrestricted research could make them vulnerable to lawsuits if an experiment somehow leads to harm, or that it could give competitors unfair insight into their products. But it's likely that the companies fear something else as well: An experiment could reveal that a genetically engineered product is hazardous or doesn't perform as promised.
Whatever the reasons, the results are clear: Public sector research has been blocked. In 2009, 26 university entomologists -- bug scientists -- wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency protesting restricted access to seeds. "No truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions involving these crops," they wrote.
Christian Krupke, 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," he said.
Beyond patent law, agricultural companies hold a pocketbook advantage in terms of research. For example, they fund much of the agricultural safety research done in the U.S. And when deciding whether to allow a genetically engineered crop onto the market, the Department of Agriculture and other regulatory agencies do not perform their own experiments on the performance and safety of the product; instead, they rely largely on studies submitted by the companies themselves.
The dangers ought to be clear. In 2001, the seed company Pioneer, owned by Dow Chemical, was developing a strain of genetically engineered corn that contained a toxin to help it resist corn rootworm, an insect pest. A group of university scientists, working at Pioneer's request, found that the corn also appeared to kill a species of beneficial ladybug, which indicated that other helpful insects might also be harmed. But, according to a report in the journal Nature Biotechnology, Dow said its own research showed no ladybug problems, and it prohibited the scientists from making the research public. Nor was it submitted to the EPA. In 2003, the EPA approved a version of the corn, known as Herculex.
Now, we may find out who was right in the field, possibly at the expense of a beneficial bug.
Research restrictions also hamper scientists' ability to assess how genetically engineered crops perform against other modified crops, traditional crops, approaches such as organic farming and the seed companies' promises. There's reason to be suspicious. Using USDA and peer-reviewed data, the Union of Concerned Scientists analyzed corn and soybean yields in the U.S. after the new seeds were introduced. We found only marginal increases due to genetically engineered traits -- not a result promoted by the industry.
Monsanto, in its defense, will point to an agreement with the USDA that gives the agency's agricultural scientists access to its genetically engineered seeds for a wide range of research, and the company has also had limited 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 Assn., a trade group, is also developing guidelines to improve access to the new seeds.
These are positive steps, but they don't go far enough. 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 the universities and research institutions that aren't party to a voluntary agreements? They're still out in the cold.
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, not research into issues such as the health risks of genetically engineered crops.
This is not how science should operate. Agricultural companies are still the gatekeepers, choosing who gets to do research and what topics are studied. To ensure that agricultural science serves the public, Congress should change patent law and create a clear exemption for agricultural research.
The need for this exemption will only increase. As the technology spreads, it's likely that more, and more complex, genetic traits will be introduced in more crops. As a result, future genetically engineered crops could pose even more risks than current ones. Without robust independent analysis, it will be impossible to adequately assess these potential pitfalls.
The companies that produce the seeds claim that genetically engineered crops are safe and are better than traditional crops in a range of ways. It's time for these companies to back up their rhetoric. The only way to test their grand assertions is to let independent science take its course.