Dec 10 2013

Do Seed Companies Restrict Research?

Well, yes and no. Such questions are often complex. With some exceptions, we generally do not live in a world with cartoon heroes and villains. Rather we live with people who have conflicting perspectives and priorities. Yet we have a universal human desire for simplicity and the sense of control, so we often reduce the horrific complexity of the world to white hats and black hats.

This tendency makes my job difficult, although also useful – specifically whenever I attempt to wrap my head around a controversial issue, such as GMO crops and agritech, I have to wade through tons of ideological propaganda in order to dig down to some clear information.

In the world of GMO, anti-GMO activists have generally made Monsanto (and big agritech generally) into the cartoon villain. Many of the claims made by critics against Monsanto, however, turn out to be gross distortions. They don’t sue companies for accidental contamination, only deliberate piracy, for example. Pointing this out does not make one a Monsanto shill.

On the other hand, concerns about GMO should not be dismissed out of hand simply because the mainstream anti-GMO activists are spreading false propaganda. While I reject “Big Agro” conspiracy theories as overblown, such an important industry does need watchdogs and regulation. Companies will look after their own interests, and someone has to make sure the public interest is getting a fair shake.

Recently a zombie article (an older article that has risen from the dead) has been spreading around the intertubes – Do Seed Companies Control GM Crop Research?  The article is by the Scientific American editors, who report:

But agritech companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta go further. For a decade their user agreements have explicitly forbidden 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 important, they cannot examine whether the genetically modified crops lead to unintended environmental side effects.

They call for unrestricted and transparent independent research into GMO.  Of course, I completely agree with this position.

However, this editorial is from 2009, four and a half years ago. Much may have happened in that time, but the article is circulating as if it’s the latest word on the topic. I tried, therefore, to find some updated material.

A New York Times article from 2009 went into more background (this is probably what the SA editorial was based on). They report that a group of 26 scientists wrote a statement complaining that the big seed companies were restricting their independent research by either refusing to sell them seeds or by not allowing them to publish their results.

The NYT article added some industry feedback. The three companies, Monsanto, Pioneer, and Syngenta claimed they supported independent research but also need to protect their patent rights (by restricting research that would make it easier to reverse-engineer their invention) and their relationship with government regulators. That seems like a corporate diversion and doesn’t really address the scientists’ concerns.

An LA Times article from 2011 got me a little up to date. They report that, in response to this criticism from scientists, the three seed companies have entered into agreements with the USDA and many universities to grant them access to their seeds for research without publication restrictions (beyond reasonable notice). Here is the full statement from the American Seed Trade Association.

That sounds like a step in the right direction, but still the LA Times article reports that scientists are concerned that these agreements are all voluntary and that industry is still “driving the bus.”

Finally I landed on an article from 2013 by Nathanael Johnson from Grist, that includes statements from scientists and industry. He reports that the voluntary agreements are actually working well:

Any scientist working at those institutions with agreements is now free to experiment. The catch is that the companies require the universities to sign a further legal agreement, showing that they understand they can’t let researchers pirate the seeds or plant them after the experiment is over.

Ironically, Monsanto has the most liberal policy:

Monsanto has a blanket agreement allowing research at all universities in the United States. And actually, when Shields et al. made their complaint, Monsanto claimed it already had many of these agreements in place allowing independent research.

The scientists who made the complaint simply did not know that Monsanto had already made moves in this direction.


It seems the story has a mostly happy ending. The seed companies were, as companies will, looking after their own corporate interests and were justifying their restrictive actions. Scientists complained, this complaint was amplified by editorials and mainstream articles, and partly as a result the companies worked out reasonable agreements allowing for more independent research.

Monsanto, which appears to be more aware of its public image since it has been so thoroughly demonized by the anti-GMO crowd, in fact was a little ahead of the curve in this regard.

The current situation, however, does not seem perfect. Only Monsanto has a blanket agreement with all independent researchers. The other two companies have individual agreements with specific universities. The agreements and restrictions could also be more transparent.

One might argue that government regulation to mandate open and completely transparent access to independent research would be better, and that is reasonable. The companies can still be protected from pirating even while allowing such research.

The 2009 SA editorial that is currently circulating is now out-of-date. This is another edge to the benefit of information access through the internet. Misinformation or outdated information also spreads readily, and it took some work for me to dig up more up-to-date information. Most people won’t do that work.

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