GM Free Cymru

A seed is planted: New dialogue makes significant progress in addressing independent seed research

Some progress on GM research blocking?

American Seed Trade Association, USA
12 August 2009

Significant progress and alignment was achieved by the 27 representatives from the research community and the seed industry who met on June 30, 2009, in Ames, Iowa, to discuss research on commercial, patent-protected seed products and opportunities to improve the process overall.

Agricultural biotechnology has brought tremendous innovation to the seed industry. A system of regulatory oversight and mechanisms to protect intellectual property has evolved along with the development and commercialization of patent-protected seed products. For this reason, commercial purchases of biotech seed, such as by farmers, requires an accompanying agreement to meet environmental stewardship needs and regulations.

Agronomic studies by public sector scientists on commercially available seed have been and are routinely being conducted, and biotechnology companies provide researchers with access to this seed. Although companies support hundreds of research studies annually, procedures to enable this work have not always been as clear or straight forward as possible and can vary from company to company. Further, these processes are not always transparent within the university systems themselves, often creating an additional layer of challenges for the scientists in meeting their research goals.

As a result, earlier this year, some public sector researchers voiced the challenges they face in conducting research on commercially available seed with patent-protected traits. When these concerns were brought to the attention of two trade associations representing the seed industry and the agricultural biotechnology industry, the American Seed Trade Association and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (otherwise known as ASTA and BIO), a meeting was proposed with the research community to better understand, discuss and address the points raised by the researchers.

The June 30 meeting brought together the appropriate industry representatives and members of the public sector research community around the same table to work toward a more harmonized and transparent approach to collaboration. Through this dialogue, both sides were able to gain insight into the others’ concerns, address some misunderstandings and bring a sense of clarity and direction for public sector research with commercial, patent-protected seed products. The dialogue identified opportunities that will help improve the overall process.

The key to this significant progress was the seed industry’s commitment to a set of principles supporting public sector research on commercially available, patent-protected seed products. The goal of the principles is to enable the public sector research community to conduct independent research on commercially available seed products for the purpose of understanding the technology, education, extension and the safe and effective use of these products. The principles also recognize that the public sector research community is free to design robust, scientifically sound experimental protocols and methodologies, as well as to derive independent conclusions.

Companies will facilitate these institutions’ access to commercial, licensed technologies in a way that continues to assure compliance with applicable laws and regulations, respect for intellectual property and use of comprehensive stewardship programs that promote the responsible and safe management of these commercially available products.

In addition, the principles commit to a regular and ongoing dialogue between the seed industry and the public sector researchers and institutions.

A final version of the principles will be presented at the ASTA’s Executive Committee of the Board of Directors on Sept. 17 and at BIO’s Food and Agriculture Section Governing Board Sept. 10 for approval and adoption. Although every company must determine independently the terms under which it will implement these principles, they demonstrate the commitment of the seed and biotechnology industries to public sector research.

”Although the ’devil is in the details,’ we’ll have to see how each company implements the principles. However, it was reassuring to see that the seed industry is taking public researchers’ concerns seriously and has made tremendous progress in developing consensus on a set of principles in support of public research,” said Ken Ostlie, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota.

The collaborative group is exploring plans for the next meeting to foster an ongoing dialogue and fulfill the mission to support the public good through broad-based laboratory and field research programs, educational outreach, continued pursuit of knowledge using controlled and rigorous experiments, and publication in scientific and popular literature.

”I went into the meeting hopeful, but also somewhat skeptical. Although I’m still a little wary, the seed companies represented at the meeting seem committed to solving the problems we discussed. They certainly can be solved, and I’m cautiously optimistic they will be,” said one researcher in attendance of the Ames meeting. ”In the end, we had a substantive discussion. If the draft principles we saw are adopted and acted on in the spirit in which they were presented, they will definitely take us in the right direction. Anticipated agreements based on the principles should functionally provide us with the freedom to conduct independent research on commercially available seed and to report our findings, whatever they may be, without interference.”

”The seed industry continues to be strongly committed to supporting research by public sector scientists,” responded ASTA President and CEO Andy LaVigne. ”This research ensures agricultural technologies are used responsibly in the environment, deliver value to growers, and provide food, feed, fiber and fuel for a growing world.”