Sujatha Byravan

The claims of GMO proponents cannot be verified independently or indeed be falsified.

The philosopher Karl Popper is famous for using falsifiability as the basis for separating science from non-science. If a hypothesis can be openly tested and allows for the possibility of being falsified, he said, then it is scientific. By this measure, the tables are being turned on the biotechnology companies that have often disingenuously labelled their opponents as unscientific. Critics, however, have long contended that agribusiness is more interested in private profits rather than in the claimed public benefits and a recent development lends credence to their observations.

An anonymous public statement was signed and submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by 26 leading scientists, entomologists who work with insects that infect corn. It stated that scientists are unable to conduct independent research on GM crops as patents prevent full access to research materials and the ability to grow and study these plants. As a consequence, the scientists state, the data that the Scientific Advisory Panel of the EPA has available to it is unduly limited. The full statement can be found at ( http://www.regulations.gov/fdmspublic/component/main?main=DocumentDetail&o=090000648084de39). In other words, the claims of GMO proponents cannot be verified independently or indeed be falsified. Given the history of personal and professional attacks on critics of GM crops by agribusiness, many of these scientists have preferred to remain anonymous. The scientists who signed the statement, a few of whom have been open, say that they are not opposed to GM per se, but are simply interested in researching these crops just as they study non-GM crops, which seems like a reasonable request. The comments were submitted in advance of an EPA scientific advisory panel meeting proposed to consider two requests by biotechnology companies. One is about insect resistant biotech crops and the other is about Pioneer Hi-Bred’s request to use a new method that reduces the land set aside by farmers as refuge, which is supposed to prevent insects from becoming resistant to engineered corn.

The following, a summary of the regulatory framework for GM crops in the U.S., provides some context to this discussion. Presuming a low risk from these crops, three federal agencies, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the EPA, provide oversight that is based on a jumble of pre-existing statutes. The USDA is supposed to promote and regulate GM crops. The FDA allows companies to follow what is referred to as a “voluntary consultation” process that does not involve a comprehensive scientific review. The USDA is supposed to monitor field trials of new GE varieties and regulate crops based on information given by seed companies, but applications for field-testing are never rejected. The EPA has jurisdiction only over plants that are engineered to produce pesticides and this agency too relies almost entirely on company data, and does not require an approved set of laboratory tests.

According to an article in The New York Times, Christian Krupke, a scientist at Purdue University, said that because outside scientists could not study Pioneer’s strategy, potential problems have not been critically evaluated, as they ought to be in any scientific investigation. In the same article, Elson Shields of Cornell notes that over time financing for agricultural research has come increasingly from the private sector. He is quoted as saying that scientists cannot carry on research into corn without access to new varieties from the companies, and these they refuse to provide. When companies make claims about various positive contributions from their engineered crops their statements cannot be taken simply on faith. They need to be tested independently and results published in peer-reviewed journals. There is already plenty of evidence pointing to the influence exerted by pharmaceutical companies on physicians and the conflict of interest, corruption and compromise in public health engendered by such practices. A similarly unblinkered approach is needed in the area of GM crops as well, which has the potential to damage biodiversity, ecological systems, food security and possibly even human health.

In addition to impeding research, companies also exert their influence on review and approval by way of revolving doors between agribusiness and regulators. Individuals from biotechnology companies often occupy key decision-making positions in regulatory agencies, and regulators are frequently rewarded with private sector jobs. This practice occurs in India as frequently as elsewhere and members of all regulatory and advisory committees need to be open about their collaborations and, in addition, a significant number of independent scientists and public intellectuals need to be part of such bodies.

Need to change law

Finally, it is important to note that the disproportionate investment into genetically engineered crops has led to the serious disrepair of publicly funded research in areas of plant breeding, tissue culture, ecological and organic farming and other processes that promote food security and agriculture. The patent act needs to be changed to allow scientists access to materials for independent research. The Indian Parliament has been eager to pass legislation similar to the U.S. Bayh–Dole Act of 1980, which allows institutions to transfer rights from publicly funded research to inventors and commercial partners. These and many other considerations that are relevant in the context of research and patents need to be debated at length in India before we too end up in the regulatory mess that the U.S. finds itself in.

(Based in Chennai, Sujatha Byravan is an independent adviser on science and technology. She is on the board of the Council for Responsible Genetics, Cambridge, MA.)