Saturday, September 27, 2014

How patents pervert GMO science

Science Daily is running an article that is just literally gushing with the good news that genetically engineered crops cause no damage to the health of livestock fed a complete diet of GMO feed. The article provides some detail about the findings but makes no mention of the methodology. Yet, at the end of the article, a very political statement is made:

“To avoid international trade disruptions, it is critical that the regulatory approval process for genetically engineered products be established in countries importing these feeds at the same time that regulatory approvals are passed in the countries that are major exporters of animal feed,” Van Eenennaam said.

Yes, it must be very important to get those trade deals done so that ordinary people have no say over the content of their food and the labeling of the same. Patent holders, including the university, are anxious to get at the profits of their research, but first, they must get the trade deals done with great secrecy so that the scourge of GMOs can be spread worldwide. They want to go after 64 countries that insist on banning or labeling GMO crops.

There is no indication of peer review for this study yet as it has only just been released. The study was funded in part by the Kellog Foundation, that bastion of health from Wellville. But the article did prompt me to ask, how much money does the University of California receive from Monsanto? Well, I don't think that is an easy question to solve, as I'm sure, like the dark money in politics, companies like Monsanto would rather not have all of their contributions disclosed. But at least one group of researchers has expressed concern about it, the Students for Responsible Research at the University of Davis. UC Davis is the source of the original study mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Those same students express concern that so much private money is tilting research in favor of the commercial interests that benefit from research being done on their products. So I see an interesting trend here. Over the last 40 years, there has been a steady erosion of public funding for schools and colleges, all in the name of efficiency. During the same time, we see a steady increase in private funding of research institutions. Side question: if private funding is so efficient, why is the cost of education rising faster than inflation?

With private money comes private influence. The students going through those institutions will see the money before they see the principles and will have a tough choice to make. Do I produce research that flatters our benevolent benefactors, or do I create research based on critical thinking and analysis?

The purpose of research is to create knowledge that benefits us all. As the critics at the UC Davis' Students for Responsible Research point out, private money has created a sort of thought police, guarding against any criticism of privately funded research programs aimed at commercial objectives. Such a close relationship between public schools and private institutions can hinder or prevent the objective analysis required to ensure that our food is safe for all.

Consider that for decades, our great research institutions have been telling us how safe artificial sweeteners have been for us. Yet, very recently, a study has shown us how aspartame changes our digestion and can lead to diabetes and obesity by changing our gut bacteria. Most aspartame sold here in America comes from genetically modified E. Coli, our friendly gut bacteria. Given the widespread use of aspartame, and the far reaching consequences that research institutions friendly to their benefactors were not able to tell us about until now, how can we trust those same institutions to give us good research on GMOs?

We can't. At least not as long as they benefit from the enormous rents provided by strong patent monopolies. The incentives are too great and as such, pervert the goals of the research on GMOs. All GMOs currently in production and sold here in America have very strong patent protection. It is an unfortunate fact of life.

The tendency to promote that which brings in money over that which can help all of us is a very strong tendency indeed. It is easy to think that with more money than everyone else, one has an increased chance of survival, a natural advantage over others. It is also easy to forget that money is a social contract between the one and the many - that the wealthiest among us need the rest of us more than we need him.

Removing the patent protection for GMOs will remove the most perverse incentives associated with the research on genetically modified organisms and will allow truly beneficial research on the topic to prevail. There is no other way to achieve this goal.

I actually don't have a problem with GMOs per se, if they are proven safe. But as we have seen with artificial sweeteners, it can take decades of experience to be sure that something is safe for consumption. We could learn too late that GMOs aren't as safe as they were made out to be, and that would be a tragedy, now, wouldn't it?
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