- Today's Topics in 'AgBioView' -
* PR Firms: In Bed with 'The Protest Industry?'
* The Irony of Illegal Bt Cotton
* Jhootistan Strikes against Cotton Farmers
* Brazil's Decision on GM Soy Has Huge Global Trade Implications
* UK Pro-Biotech Group Poll Shows Farmers Support GMO Crops
* Return of The (GM) Native
* Biotech is Not a Bad Word
* Seeds of Opportunity?
* Universities For Sale?
* Correction : Incorrect Date of the IFT Report
From: Andrew Apel
Dear Mr. Irvine:
I greatly appreciate the thought you are putting into your work at ePublic Relations. Your latest addition to your website http://www.epublicrelations.org/ regarding NGOs and PR folks is interesting and thoughtful, and I agree with it, to the extent that what you say is true.
However, it overlooks other things that are far more disturbing, even to someone as cynical as I am. While it is true that NGOs attempt to usurp or overshadow the democratic process, it is truer still that they are in business to make money. They are the "protest industry," and they are motivated by profit. If a scare/cause doesn't bring in the money, they'll move on to another scare/cause.
You make an interesting point about what happened when Home Depot capitulated to the NGOs--but you didn't complete the Home Depot story. Ever since Home Depot capitulated, they have been the target of additional protest actions. The same thing happened to Starbuck's Coffee--they capitulated to the NGOs, and became the target of more campaigns. Capitulation does not make NGOs go away, it draws them. Capitulation gives them credibility and power. But that's not the ultimate goal. Credibility and power draw money.
Given the dangers of capitulation (the betrayal of democracy aside), and the fact that mere engagement with NGOs is a capitulation of sorts (and gives NGOs credibility), why would a PR firm recommend that clients engage the NGOs?
For the same reason the NGOs protest. To make money. Obviously, PR firms can make money by getting their clients to engage with NGOs. I'm even willing to bet that some PR firms are advising their clients on which NGOs are the most credible and powerful--and therefore, supposedly, the most "valuable" to engage with. (Valuable to whom?)
In this manner, PR firms that recommend clients engage with NGOs are abetting the NGOs, at client expense.*
For practical purposes, this puts such PR firms in bed with NGOs. "Money," said the prostitute, "makes for strange bedfellows."
* In the most chilling scenario, the PR firm advises the client to engage NGOs in order to precipitate a PR crisis, which would make it necessary to bring in a "crisis management team" and generate lots of billable hours.
>The PR Battle For Democracy: What NGOs Are All About - 02
>- "Ross S. Irvine"
>The PR industry had made a 'startling' discovery: NGOs are here
>to stay and they're powerful. In their eagerness to address
>this 'new' reality, PR folks are encouraging employers and
>clients to engage NGOs constructively. But by doing so,
>PR folks are weakening and threatening democracy.
The Irony of Illegal Bt Cotton
- C. S. Prakash, The Hindu (India). Wednesday, November 07, 2001
The issue of illegal Bt cotton making headlines in the Indian media provides some valuable lessons. It shows that many of our farmers would readily employ 'improved' varieties of crops when given a choice, and that biotechnology clearly offers solutions to certain agricultural problems. Ironically, it also exposes the consequences of regulatory foot-dragging that sadly spawned this proliferation of 'unapproved' seeds.
The overall safety of using Bt genes to control pests with genetically-enhanced plants is not in question here as millions of acres of Bt crops are being grown worldwide without any problem to health or the environment.
For the last six years, the Indian seed company Mahyco has been testing insect-resistant Bt cotton while following the strict regulatory protocols. It spent a great deal of money in research, development and testing, waited patiently for six years, and endured much media and activist attention. As part of the approvals process, the company has conducted over 100 field trials with Bt cotton in different agro- climatic zones, and has done extensive nutritional and bio-safety studies under the directives issued by different regulatory authorities, and in close cooperation with many national scientific institutions.
Imagine its bewilderment at being usurped by a little known company that, going by media reports, has been clandestinely selling unapproved Bt cotton seeds to farmers in three States for the last three years. It has marketed the seeds under the guise of 'hybrid' seeds, claiming that their bollworm-tolerance trait was not from the use of Bt technology but through traditional plant breeding methods. Laboratory tests have conclusively established that these seeds were indeed transgenic.
Understandably, the seeds have proved very popular among cotton farmers who have been suffering the havoc caused by the bollworm for almost a decade. They regard the seeds a godsend and are ready to take on any Government authority that wants to torch their bountiful crop. Paradoxically enough, this unforeseen development is indicative of how the tide has turned in favour of biotechnology in India and debunks the myths that Indian farmers are not willing to embrace this technology or pay more for improved seeds.
It is also illustrative of the sluggish regulatory system and the lax enforcement of existing rules. This has also happened in Brazil. In a world where farmers have access to the latest information via television and Internet, they have shown themselves willing to adopt new technologies - no matter who sells it or where it comes from - to tackle old challenges. Governments have a valuable lesson to learn from this - they must reform the regulatory process to eliminate unnecessary delays and trim the red tape. It is inevitable that when farmers do not have access to new technologies via approved routes, we risk unscrupulous firms sneaking them in.
Crop biotechnology is a new cutting-edge technology that farmers in several countries around the world are enthusiastically adopting, but under the watchful eye of scientists and regulatory authorities. Since 1990, more than 50 genetically-improved plants have been given approval in 15 countries on six continents. In all these countries, stringent rules on plant varieties are in place.
It is because of such compliance with regulatory protocols that confidence in the safe use of the new crops has grown rapidly round the world. As a report issued last month by the European Commission, executive branch of the European Union, pointed out, "Research on GM (genetically-modified) plants and derived products so far developed and marketed, following usual risk assessment procedures, has not shown any new risks to human health or the environment, beyond the usual uncertainties of conventional plant breeding. Indeed, the use of more precise technology and greater regulatory scrutiny probably make them even safer than conventional plants and foods''.
The Commission went on to add that no unforeseen environmental effects have yet shown up, but even if they do, "these should be rapidly detected by existing monitoring systems." It is these monitoring systems, on which public confidence in the safety of crop biotechnology depends, which have been undermined in Gujarat. The risks are enormous for the whole of India's fledging biotechnology industry, both in medicine and agriculture.
This is not about patent rights or intellectual property issues but it is about the appropriate use and credible monitoring of this new technology, along with safeguarding the global interests of India's biotechnology industry. One false step by a seed company without the scientific standing needed to build public confidence in the system can set back the development of this new science for decades. It can destroy the foundations of the edifice of regulatory measures so painstakingly and labouriously built over the years by the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee in the Union Ministry of Environment, the Department of Biotechnology of the Union Ministry of Science and Technology, and other leading Indian scientific institutions.
Biotechnology will be the locomotive of growth in coming decades and the Government of India just cannot afford to take chances. It must deal uncompromisingly with the offending company, regardless of its political connections, under the existing provisions of the Environment Protection Act of 1986.
While the company must be held accountable for its acts of commission and omission, the Government also has a responsibility to ensure that all seeds it has released in the market, including those saved by farmers from the crops of the last three years, are destroyed.
The illegal Bt cotton incident has ramifications for the development of biotechnology in India. It may have implications also on the investment and development of a whole range of new technologies, including medical biotechnologies. Lack of faith in the Indian regulatory system also engenders a grave risk that exports of Indian products using these new technologies could be banned and new non-tariff barriers created. India needs a sound, comprehensive regulatory system, but one that is also time- efficient in line with other countries. India just cannot afford to let the slogan of "IT Today, BT Tomorrow" be destroyed by an irresponsible act of one company.
(The writer is Professor of Plant Molecular Genetics, Tuskegee University, Alabama, U.S. He also serves on the special advisory committee of the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India.)
Jhootistan Strikes against Cotton Farmers
- Sharad Joshi, Business Line (India), Nov 7, 2001
* Founder, Shetkari Sanghatana (A Farmers Organization, India)
During the 1965 war with Pakistan, the official radio companies of the two adversary countries carried on their own propaganda war. Radio Pakistan broadcast continuously its reports about how the Pakistani Air Force was dominating the Indian skies and how it had wreaked havoc on all major Defence installations in India.
To counter this propaganda, the All India Radio broadcast a skit call 'Radio Jhootistan'. Under that banner were broadcast hyperbolic claims of the Pakistani satraps about their achievement. Indian listeners did not, in fact, see any trace of presence of Pakistani forces around them. It provided hilarious fun. The 1965 war is long past, and few remember the 'Radio Jhootistan' comedy. But it would appear that some people in the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environment and Forests were closely observing the Radio Jhootistan technique and making detailed notes. They are now using them in their Ministries' onslaught on the cotton-producing farmers of Gujarat.
The genesis of the war declared by the Government on the Gujarat farmers is, briefly, as follows. The concerned Ministries have been managing to block the introduction of genetic cotton seeds in India by raising all sorts of bogeys. The concerned seed is being extensively sown in all major cotton-producing countries with no perceptible adverse effects, on either man or beast or the environment. Its ability to resist the dreaded bollworm and increase production stands proven.
The Government, nevertheless, appears keen on protecting the pesticide industry, which will be severely threatened if genetic seeds inculcate pest-resistance in the plant itself. Concurrently, it could have come under the influence of environment terrorists in Europe, in India and in the government itself. It is not to be ruled out that the bollworm, the most jeopardised party, may have taken hold of the bureaucracy with which they share the gluttony and rapacity.
The Agriculture Minister blandly announced in a TV interview that the Bt seed in question was not registered for commercial use and that, therefore, its sowing was illegal. The government has no alternative, he continued, but to uproot the Bt cotton plants and burn the foliage and the cotton lest the seed be used again.
The cotton farmers in Gujarat reacted strongly. The seed in question has been in use for two to three years and nobody had noticed any difference in the Bt cotton crop. That was probably because the bollworms were dormant during that period.
This year, the bollworms are so rampant that all non-Bt crop lies totally devastated with the quasi-totality of bolls being eaten up by them. It is only the Bt cotton plots that stand in all glory and resplendent. The output is much higher, and the fibre finer and longer. It looked like some sort of making up by Nature for the havoc caused by the earthquake at the beginning of the year.
Farmers were aghast to find that their own government was ordering the police and other agencies to carry out 'search and destroy' operations against Bt cotton plots. They wondered why the government showed this enthusiasm for destroying their bountiful crop; the government has hardly ever demonstrated comparable zeal in dealing with the terrorism and corruption.
Gujarat farmers have martial traditions. They decided to repulse the State invasion. They had obtained the seed in the normal course. If the supplier was guilty of some hanky-panky, they could not be blamed for it. After all, most of the seed the farmers use is unregistered. All the concerned villages are getting prepared. The job of protecting the crop is given to the womenfolk of the village, who will be symbolically strengthened by women volunteers from Maharashtra and Punjab.
The Gujarat Government and its new Chief Minister are flabbergasted. The new government is still finding its feet and can ill-afford to estrange the farmers on this scale. The Gujarat Government has made up its mind. It will not enter into a coalition with the Centre in the attack on its cotton farmers. Unlike Gen Pervez Musharraf, it insists on getting full evidence of the noxious and toxic effects of the variety before taking sides. The Central Government finds itself in the position of US President who, having declared war on Afghanistan, finds that 'Pakistan is not willing to co-operate.' The Centre has slightly attenuated its position and is now talking of paying compensation for the crops to be destroyed. The farmers could consider the matter of compensation only after the season is over and the remaining three or four pickings completed. But the Gujarat Government, in dire fiscal straits, is howling in protest. Who, pray, will foot the bill?'
The Centre has opened its Jhootistan channel. On Thursday evening, Doordarshan showed clippings of people 'supposedly Gujarat farmers' voluntarily uprooting the Bt cotton plants. It was obvious even to the unknowledgeable that the people in the clippings were not farmers; they looked more like the Green Brigade in Karnataka that attacked the Bt cotton trial- plots last year.
Bt cotton can generate resistance to certain strains of antibiotic that could render treatment of tuberculosis patient difficult', claimed the Ministry in the Jhootistan telecasts, and announced its determination to carry out the war against the Bt cotton crop in Gujarat.
The entire Jhootistan campaign proves at least one thing - 'that genuine concern for farmers does not come from any hereditary gene!'
Brazil's Decision on Whether to Allow GM Soybeans Has Huge Global Trade Implications
- November 6, 2001, http://pewagbiotech.org/newsroom/summaries/display.php3?NewsID=34
Brazil, already one of the world's largest soybean exporters, is weighing whether and when to formally approve genetically modified soybeans, which could have huge implications for the balance between modified and non-modified soy in the world, reports Reuters. Some estimate that 60 percent of the soy crop grown in Brazil is already genetically modified, despite the fact that the GM variety is not yet approved by the Brazilian government.
If Brazil chooses to approve GM products, supplies of staple foods like soybeans, coffee, sugar, beef, corn and orange juice ñ which are large crops for Brazil - may never be the same. Brazil is one of the last countries to block GM crops.
Despite the fact that Brazil has not approved GM soy, for example, it is estimated that up to 60 percent of its soy is grown from modified seeds smuggled in from neighboring Argentina. Currently, Brazil is the world's second largest soy grower. If Brazil were to permit the widespread cultivation and sale of genetically modified soy, which might still take many months due to the country's labyrinthine legal system, the global balance between modified and unmodified beans might change forever, according to Reuters.
This change could impact Brazilian soy exports because it would probably lead to losses in the European market, where consumers often prefer to buy non-GM foods due to their basic lack of trust in their governmentís regulatory system, after several major food crises.
"Europe's preference for conventional soy means that they will look to Brazilian products first,î said Cesar Borges de Souza, former president of the Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oils Industries (Abiove). "So in market terms, this is a big advantage even if they are not paying an explicit premium for conventional soy," he said. The European Union purchased over half of Brazil's total soybean and soymeal exports of more than 22 million tons between January and September this year.
A pro-GM stance in Brazil would put it on a much more equal export footing with the hemisphere's other main producers, Argentina and the United States, which both plant more than half their soy crop with GM beans. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts, Brazil should grow 41.5 million tons of soybeans in 2001/02, compared with 75.1 million tons in the U.S. and 27.0 million in Argentina, which accounts for nearly 80 percent of global output.
If Brazil's government were to adopt a pro-GM policy, modified beans would also dominate world soy exports, with the top three producers accounting for an expected 52 million of a total 57 million tons of exports forecast for next season, according to Reuters. Despite the premium paid for their purported non-GM produce in Europe, Brazilian farmers are attracted by the savings offered by GM soybeans because they fewer herbicides as well as less fuel to power machinery for routine field operations.
The financial rewards may have already moved the GM issue in Brazil beyond the power of the courts and the government, as can be evidenced by the illegally grown GM soy. In Brazil's southernmost state, GM soy accounts for 60 percent of planted area, which is double the level last year, according to Brazil's Seed Producers Association (Abrasem). Industry sources have said the government is either turning a blind eye to the smuggling, or simply unable to prevent it.
UK Pro-Biotech Group Says Poll Shows Farmers For GMO Crops
- Luis Morais, Dow Jones 05 Nov 2001
LONDON -(Dow Jones)- Almost two thirds of U.K. farmers favor genetically modified crops a survey by independent research company National Farm Research Unit commissioned by a biotechnology company showed, the U.K.-based pro-biotech group CropGen said Monday.
The survey said 63% of 5,448 U.K. farmers polled between October 2000 and August 2001 said they were in favor of GM crops. About 8% said they were against GM crops and 29% said "don't know", CropGen added
Return of The (GM) Native
- Forestry and British Timber, 01 Nov 2001
A team of scientists from Abertay University Dundee has grown the world's first genetically modified (GM) elm trees. The breakthrough - reports Don Kennedy - could lead to the reintroduction into their natural habitat of elm trees resistant to Dutch elm disease (DED).
Britain has lost some 25m elm trees over the past 20 years to this environmentally devastating disease. The USA has seen over 70% of its mature elms destroyed since the 1930s. The total loss over the past 80 years throughout the northern hemisphere and in New Zealand stands at more than 300m trees. Abertay's GM elms are being developed under strict laboratory conditions and have not been released into the environment. By transferring anti-fungal genes into the elm genome, its researchers have produced elms that could fight off the killer fungus which rapidly spreads through infected trees. (Their work was described in the August 2001 issue of the academic journal, The Biochemist').
Professor Kevan Gartland - head of the molecular and life sciences division within Abertay Dundee's school of science and engineering - is leading the development's eight-strong research team. He said: `This is an example of environmentally-friendly biotechnology. `Our work on elm trees could be used to tackle the damage to landscapes and ecosystems caused by such fungal diseases as Dutch elm and chestnut blight throughout the world'.
The two major funders of the GM elm research programme are the University and the Forestry Commission which has contributed an annual #45000 over the past five years and whose DG David Bills referred to 'this devastating disease. `If this research is successful in the long term', he said, 'it could provide an opportunity to put some of those lost and much- loved elms back into our woodlands and countryside - not just here but also in other parts of the world'.
There are 40 different elm species. The disease, first studied in Holland, is carried by beetles which breed under the bark of the tree. After the disease is contracted, fungal growth spreads throughout the tree preventing water and minerals from reaching branches and leaves. The tree can take weeks or years to die. Traditional plant-breeding approaches to the problems of the disease in Europe have failed while non-GM biotechnological methods have enjoyed only limited success.
'The Abertay team's recent discovery marks the culmination of a decade's work in forest biotechnology', said Prof Gartland. `It's all down to hard work, perseverance and a bit of ingenuity. 'We used two methods to transfer genes in to the elm genome: through agrobacterium - nature's own genetic engineer - and by firing minute DNA-coated ball-bearings at elm-leaf pieces using a helium- powered gun. 'Both methods produced good results', he said. 'Some of the trees have already reached l.5m in height. When the time is right, they will undergo rigorous testing in an effort to establish their resistance to Ophiostoma-novo-ulmi, the DED fungus. Now, the Abertay team hopes that its work will not be disrupted by environmental extremists.
Elm trees first appeared around 40m years ago and can live for up to 300 years. They are valued as timber, shade and amenity trees both in the UK and in the USA. They are highly prized for their beauty in the landscape and their ability to withstand environmental stresses in the urban environment. The remaining seven million US urban elms are worth around $19bn ($2900 per tree). The Washington and Boston elms are famous cultural symbols through their association with significant treaties and the American war of independence. English elms make a particularly good candidate for GM technology because they do not regenerate by seed in the UK.
Biotech is Not a Bad Word
- Jim Fischer, Letter, Canadian Business 29 Oct 2001
In her recent story on genetically modified food issues ("Chew on this!" Commentary, Oct. 1), Gloria Kim fails to answer the most important question she raises: why should the public support R&D initiatives on food biotechnology? The answer is simple. Whether its goal is to improve the safety and quality of our food supply, to reduce the environmental impact of food production or to supply farmers with better management tools, investment in agricultural research pays off in benefits that are shared by all of Canadian society. Many Canadian farmers grow crops enhanced through biotechnology because they provide advantages over traditional varieties, such as increased quality and safety, higher yields, reduced production costs and the ability to grow the highquality, affordable food consumers demand, while reducing pesticide use or using safer pesticides than previously possible.
In 2001, Ontario farmers chose such crops in record numbers: more than 25% of soybeans, 80% of canola and about 40% of corn were grown from GM seed varieties. Before they can be grown or marketed in Canada, these seeds must be assessed by federal regulators to ensure their health and environmental safety. Global competitiveness issues already abound in Canada's agriculture industry. Continued public investment in research is essential if we are to ensure the longterm viability of the sector.
Seeds of Opportunity?
- Rosie Hails, Trends In Ecology And Evolution, Vol 16, No 11, 2001, pp 598-599; Reprinted in Agbioview with permission from Elsevier Science; The journal 'Trends in Ecology and Evolution' Homepage at http://www.biomednet.com
‘Seeds of Opportunity’ was held at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), Russell Square, London on 31st May – 1st June 2001, jointly hosted by the US Embassy, the Royal Agricultural College, Queen Mary and SOAS. An edited version of this conference is available on http://www.mediawaveav.co.uk/usembassy.
The ethos of this conference, as expounded by the principal organiser Professor Stott, was to consider critically, yet positively, the development and future role of biotechnology in relation to the environment, the consumer, and the developing world. This conference was unusual in two respects. The first was the atmosphere of optimism surrounding the subject, created in part, no doubt, by the selection of speakers and participants. The second was the active integration of key commentators from the press – including Paul Brown of the Guardian, and Tom Stuttaford of the Times.
The positive tone of the conference was reinforced by speakers outlining some of the consumer oriented benefits on the horizon, such as food with improved nutritional qualities, the development of bio-based renewable materials, and food based vaccines. In spite of effective techniques for producing hepatitis B vaccine (for example), 40% of the worlds population does not get access to this vaccine because of cost. Dr Arntzen (Arizona State University) outlined progress that has been in made in producing these and other vaccines through transgenic potatoes, tomatoes and bananas. The last crop in particular could be suitable for creating a technology which will allow vaccine manufacture in the developing world, with all the knock on benefits for public health and the economy.
This optimism was affirmed by Dr Prakash (Tuskegee University), who argued that, unlike the 'green revolution approach', there are 'scale neutral' features of modern biotechnology because the added value is delivered primarily through the seed. Thus there is the potential for small farmers to benefit as well as larger farms. One requirement is that plant material must be affordable and accessible, and that research and development priorities focus on marginal crops such as millets, plantain, cassava and sweetpotato. One favoured way in which research priorities may be attuned to the needs of small farmers is through the development of public/private partnerships. Dr Karembu (Kenyatta University, Kenya) presented a couple of case studies of the successful application of biotechnology in Kenya. One example is cotton expressing the insecticidal protein Bt (from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis). This has led to yield increases of 27%, pesticide use reduction of 80% and an increase in income for the farmer
But does technological progress come at an environmental cost? This question was considered by Prof Dale (John Innes Centre, Norwich), Dr Hails (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Oxford) and Prof Watkinson (University of East Anglia). Empirical evidence suggests that recent intensification of agricultural practice has led to changes in the countryside associated with declines in biodiversity (Krebs et al 1999, Chamberlain et al 2000). One key question surrounding genetically modified crops is whether their uncontrolled introduction is likely to aggravate or alleviate this impact. If we become better at producing crops that no organisms but ourselves will eat, then it is logical to expect that this will contribute further to declines in farmland wildlife. On the other hand, if pest control becomes very much more targeted, including tissue specific expression and inducible defences, then chemical inputs will be reduced and nontarget insect mortality minimised. Perhaps modern biotechnology can make true ‘integ
Environmental concerns are not confined to the UK. Dr Alvarez-Morales (Mexican Centre for Research and Advanced Studies) outlined the particular problems of Mexico - a centre of origin for many crops. There are land-races of maize, and sexually compatible wild relatives, but little ecological data on the potential consequences of gene flow between transgenic crops and these wild relatives. However, the unofficial moratorium of the last few years has stifled research, and prevented the acquisition of ecological data.
The judicious application of any new technology requires societies involvement to be successful. One of the emerging questions from the conference was how to implement a constructive debate on the future of agriculture, both in the UK and more widely. Sir Robert May (President of the Royal Society) suggested that the debate on stem cell research provided a good model, which involved two rounds of public consultation over three years, with discussion in the upper and lower houses. This has resulted in doors being opened to chosen applications, but closed on certain areas such as reproductive cloning. A successful debate must be an informed one. Sir Harry Kroto gave one of the most rousing presentations on the communication of science, and its integration into our intellectual and cultural development.
It is extremely difficult to sum up the essence of this debate without sounding over-dramatic. As Sir Robert May stated in his concluding remarks, we live in the best of times and the worst of times. We in the developed world are particularly fortunate. Life expectancy has increased, and never have we spent such a small proportion of our income on food. The environmental cost of our success as a species is that we have sequestered between a quarter and a half of terrestrial net primary productivity for our own consumption, and extinction rates approach the same ball park as the five mass extinctions in the fossil record. The travesty is that in some parts of the developing world, food insecurity and malnutrition persist. The reasons for this are varied and complex. Modern crop biotechnology is not the only answer to solving the worlds food supply, but we have a responsibility to examine the contribution it can make. Even in the UK, we face the challenge of how to reverse the current trends of declining biod
Chamberlain, D.E., Fuller, R.J., Bunce, J.C., Duckworth, J.C. and Shrubb, M. (2000). Changes in the abundance of farmland birds in relation to the timing of agricultural intensification in England and Wales. Journal of Applied Ecology, 37, 771-788.
Firbank, L.G. and Forcella, F. (2000). Genetically modified crops and farmland biodiversity. Science, 289, 1481 - 1482.
Krebs, J.R., Wilson, J.D., Bradbury, R.B. and Siriwardena, G.M. (1999). The second silent spring? Nature, 400, 611-612.
Watkinson, A.R., Freckleton, R.P., Robinson, R.A. and Sutherland, W.J. (2000). Predictions of biodiversity response to genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops. Science, 289, 1554 - 1557.
Universities For Sale?
- Jim Patrico, Progressive Farmer, November 2001 (with reports by Del Deterling)
A lack of government funds for ag research has led land-grants to make deals with private companies. Is the public research system compromised?
You might as well hang a "For Sale" sign on the front doors of land-grant universities. So say critics who charge that in a rush for research dollars, public institutions are making too many deals with agribusinesses. The results, these critics say, are that professors have become profit centers, companies often are setting the research agendas for universities, and supposedly unbiased research is bought and paid for by the companies that sponsor it.
"At land-grant universities today, the guy who puts up the loot is the guy who benefits . . . and that's not always farmers and ranchers," says Fred Stokes, president of the Organization for Competitive Markets, an advocacy group for family farms. Stokes and others say that land-grants take too much research money from chemical, pharmaceutical and seed companies. Sponsors then use the research to develop expensive private-label products, which farmers feel compelled to buy to remain competitive.
"I believe this violates the mission of our land-grant institutions, promotes concentration of agriculture and contributes to the demise of the family farm," says Stokes. That is quite a load to lay on the academic world. After all, public colleges and private industry have long been research and funding partners. And those partnerships have led to many of the advances that fueled the Green Revolution and shaped the way we farm.
But that relationship has gotten out of whack in recent years, critics say. They cite this evidence: In 1998, the University of California-Berkeley signed an agreement with Novartis that gave the university access to some of the company's proprietary technology. Novartis also gave $25 million over five years for research in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. In return, the company will receive first rights to license up to 33% of the patents that result from work using those funds. The deal also grants Novartis (now Syngenta) two of five seats on the department's research committee, which determines how the $25 million is spent.
The deal didn't sit well with some UC-Berkeley faculty members. As Ignacio Chapela, a UC professor of microbial ecology, told Atlantic Monthly magazine, "This deal institutionalizes the university's relationship with one company, whose interest is profit. Our role should be to serve the public good."
Land-grant researchers increasingly find themselves shut out of the scientific process by patents owned by industry. For instance, William Folk, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Missouri, recently found that he could not obtain licenses to use certain plant-transformation techniques developed by industry. He wanted to use the techniques to improve plant nutritional quality. "A large part of this [ag research] work is done in the public sector," says Folk. "But broad patents on the technology make them inaccessible to us."
Michigan State University recently licensed patents to Amway for health products MSU researchers developed in part with funds from the Cherry Marketing Institute. The deal came as a shock to CMI Director Phil Korson, who had no idea MSU had patented anything as a result of its work for cherry growers. "I would warn any commodity group that funds university research to make clear at the beginning who is going to own the intellectual property rights for what they develop," says Korson. "Growers can't take their relationship with [public] universities for granted any more."
Long Ties Strained: Farmers have long thought of state universities as their own, ever since the Morrill Act of 1862 gave federal lands to states as a way to fund education based on "agriculture and the mechanical arts." William Folk, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Missouri, hopes to use gene-splicing techniques to increase the nutritional value of plants. But a company that now holds the license to some of the technology refused Folk the right to use it.
But three developments in the last 20 years have put a strain on the university-farmer relationship, while pushing the public sector and big business closer together. First, federal funding for ag research has been flat since the 1980s, yet the price of research keeps rising. (By one estimate, it takes an average of $300,000 a year to keep one university researcher on staff and properly equipped.) As a result, land-grants have had to scramble to find new sources of funding.
Second, Congress in 1980 passed the Bayh-Dole Act, which enables universities to patent inventions and processes developed during federally funded research. Suddenly, public institutions had access to the profits of the marketplace, and they responded with vigor. By 1998, the top 10 research universities held 1,921 patent licenses, earned more than $370 million a year in license revenues and had started up 78 for-profit companies, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The third event made agriculture a prime target for patents. When the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 ruled that life forms could be patented, it made biotechnology a goose that promised to lay unlimited golden eggs for those who owned the patents. Private industry rushed into biotech, and so did land-grants. Within months of that Supreme Court decision, faculty members at UC-Davis created Calgene, a private company and one of the first biotech companies out of the chute.
Money Trail: University administrators interviewed for this article acknowledge that funding needs have created new ground rules for ag research. "Farmers and land-grants have always had a good relationship, because colleges could respond to farmers' needs," says James Fischer, dean for public service research at Clemson University. "But now the faculty is having to go to outside sources [for funds]. Colleges are no longer in the driver's seat. My concern is, Who is setting the research agenda?"
Researchers have to seek outside sources, because federal funds have not kept pace either with inflation or with the cost of new technology. In 1978, the USDA food and agriculture budget was about $1.6 billion. By 1998, it had fallen to about $1.5 billion. Formula funding (the federal government's dollar-for-dollar matching funds for state land-grants) has decreased 8% in the last 10 years, says Fischer. Meanwhile, federal funding for other types of research (health, energy, defense, etc.) has increased. Agriculture gets a mere two cents of every research dollar Uncle Sam spends.
While federal funding for ag research has declined or remained flat, private industry has increased its spending an average of 4.5% each year since 1980. It now spends about 60% of all money spent on ag research in the U.S., says Fischer. With the federal cupboard increasingly bare and with private industry willing to spend, it's little wonder that researchers-and universities-look longingly to the private companies for funds.
Partners or Payola? The perception that universities have sold out is unfair and inaccurate, says Mike Chippendale, former head of Extension Research at the University of Missouri. "Put it in perspective," he says. "Only 8% of total college support comes from outside industries. The rest is nonindustry support. But it's that small piece [8%] that gets everyone's attention."
Chippendale is keenly aware of public scrutiny of university-industry ties. Monsanto contributes mightily to UM ag research, and the university has taken some heat for its perceived closeness to the St. Louis-based company. Particularly snide critics have given UM a nickname: The University of Monsanto. Chippendale shakes his head at the intended slur. "Monsanto's home is in this state," he says. "We work on many of the same things they do. It's only natural that we work together somehow. Partnering is not the same as selling out."
The concern over university-industry partnerships is overblown, says Terry Wolf, an Illinois farmer who is president of the National Coalition for Food and Agriculture Research. The group was formed early in 2001 by universities, private companies and individuals with the goal of doubling federal funding for ag research in the next five years.
"We have always had a partnership with public and private research," says Wolf. "The populist philosophy that says we shouldn't [have such partnerships] doesn't have much foundation in fact." Even if universities wanted to avoid partnerships-and they don't-government encourages them to seek outside sources to supplement their income. "When we go to the state legislature and a senator from Dallas asks the question, 'Is the industry providing matching funds for our appropriation?' our answer better be 'yes,' " says Ed Hiler, deputy chancellor and dean of agriculture at Texas A&M.
Administrators aren't the only university employees feeling the pressure to get closer to private companies. On condition that we not use his name, a researcher at a Midwestern land-grant university told Progressive Farmer, "We are being told we need to form relationships with private industry. Our main mission is revenue generation. There is not a big pool of money for research. So we are all fighting to get our share." Other current and former researchers tell the same story. One who left a public institution to go to work for a private company says he did so in part because fund-raising became too much of a distraction.
"I probably spent 15 to 20% of my time [at the university] submitting grant proposals. In the private sector, you don't spend nearly as much time on it [fund-raising for research]. You can do what you're trained to do," he says. The researchers we interviewed deny, however, that ties with industry affect the objectivity of their research. Says one researcher at a land-grant, "Even though we take that money, we show no bias. We can't, and we don't."
As for bias in setting research agendas, Chippendale and other university administrators insist that the public's good is their first concern. Strict procedures ensure that research proposals come in and are evaluated, voted on and prioritized without bias. Farmer "stakeholders" are a part of the process along the way. "But we have to look very, very closely at our priorities, because we can't do many of the things we'd like to do. The money isn't there," says Chippendale.
Seed breeding is a good example of a research area that has suffered from a lack of funds. "In cotton, there are probably fewer than half the cotton breeders in the public sector that there were 15 years ago," says Tom Kerby, Delta and Pine Land Company's vice president of technical services.
He lists land-grants that got out of the cotton-breeding business. He says, "The heads of university ag research programs look at plant breeding and see that they don't get much money from state legislatures for applied research like that. So they drop it." "There is a real concern, especially for minor crops," says Chippendale. "Industry will take care of the major crops, because that's where the money is. But minor crops? Niche crops? Who is going to work on them?" Who, indeed?
Industry's Stake: Kerby will tell you that his company has a stake in strong land-grant plant-breeding programs. "We are not in competition with them," he says. "We pay royalties every year [to universities] to use important varieties they developed." What's more, if land-grants cut all plant-breeding programs, where would future plant breeders go to learn? And without trained breeders, how could D&PL develop new cotton varieties?
Private companies will tell you that they don't have-and don't want-land-grant universities in their pockets. "I don't think it's happening," says Rob Horsch, Monsanto's vice president of product and technology cooperation. "The No. 1 issue for us with universities and with science is to get good information . . . unbiased, believable, reproducible information." If growers perceive university research as biased, the perception becomes reality. Then they stop trusting what land-grant scientists tell them.
"Even the possibility that it could happen is a good argument for public-sector funding," says Horsch. That's one reason Monsanto is a member of National C-FAR, whose goal is to increase federal funding for public universities. "From our perspective, we want to see a healthy university system," says D&PL's Kerby. "We want to see universities taking on plant breeding and teaching that to students. But we also want to be in a position to provide some support."
AgBioView Correction : Incorrect Date of the IFT Report
It has been brought to my attention that AgBioView erroneously published the date of a report on biotechnology by the Institute of Food Technologists as 'October 25, 2001' ('Expert Panel Report on Biotechnology and Foods').
I have now learnt that beginning August, 2000, IFT released its Expert Panel Report on Biotechnology and Foods in the first of three consecutive issues of Food Technology magazine.
Subsequently the entire Report and all corresponding One-Page Briefs, Background Sheets and FAQs were officially released in September 2000.
The error is regretted. The updated AgBioView archives at http://www.agbioworld.org/listarchive/view.php?id=1315 reflects this correction now.