(Golden rice. Photo via WikiMedia.)
Golden rice is touted as one of the highest achievements of agricultural GMOs. Enriched with a vitamin A precursor and designed for high yields, it has the potential to help millions of malnourished people all over the world, especially in Africa and South Asia. But how safe is it? Finding out may be difficult despite a mountain of research. Patents stand in the way.
All GMO studies are conducted or constrained by the agricultural biotech industry. Because of patents, seed companies control their products’ research. That opens a path to publication bias, as we saw in the late 1990s when pharmaceutical companies omitted unfavorable studies of antidepressants. Independent research isn’t enough. We need unrestricted research that isn’t subject to omission by corporations.
Some agbiotech companies, such as Monsanto, have blanket agreements with universities (as opposed to companies that pick and choose which universities they permit to publish findings, which does little to rule out bias). Such research is least affected by industry control. What’s needed is a meta-analysis of unrestricted independent studies asserting that GMOs are safe for the environment and for consumption.
The burden of proof for GMO safety is on this unrestricted research, since their position is most likely to be neutral. What is their consensus? Furthermore, university scientists can’t gain access to seeds until they’re on the market. That means GMOs are being deemed safe before any independent research is even permitted. Surely we deserve higher public health standards.
And what’s in these agreements between the seed companies and the universities? There could be a clause that still allows the companies to suspend or withdraw studies. Without transparency, we have no way of knowing. That’s one of the problems with intellectual property law, especially where there are health and environmental concerns.
Biological patents—and the mess of red tape that comes with them—make research conditions opaque to the public and difficult for the scientists. The legalese involved in biotech research is complex, confusing, and intimidating. It’s already hard for researchers to find funding. Seed companies have shut down university studies while they were in progress. That’s not just an ethical concern, it’s a waste of money.
Please note that I’m not saying GMOs are unsafe. The GMO conversation tends to be highly polarized, and my position is often misinterpreted. My primary criticism is the ways in which patent law hinders science, particularly risk assessment. GMO research serves as a example.
- Do Seed Companies Control GM Crop Research? – Scientific American
- Genetically modified seed research: What’s locked and what isn’t – Grist Magazine
- Publication of Clinical Trials Supporting Successful New Drug Applications: A Literature Analysis – Public Library of Science
- Antidepressant Studies Unpublished – The New York Times