Once upon a time there was a stool supporting agriculture with three legs. One leg was the farmers who tilled, planted and harvested. The second leg was the companies who supplied the inputs the farmer used. The third leg was the public researchers-U.S. Department of Agriculture and land grant researchers who studied farming practices and inputs, did basic agronomic research and made recommendations based on comparative studies and laboratory analysis. The stool was stable, and agriculture grew and prospered.

Times change. The research leg is becoming wobbly and the stool less stable, due in part to a little noticed clause in biotech seed purchase agreements. The clause prohibits research with commercialized seed without permission. The legal language is clear. No research is allowed. Syngenta, Monsanto and Pioneer (Dow AgroSciences deferred questions to an industry group) all say they encourage comparative research and support academic research. Yet they have retained language that restrains it.

Steve Sodeman likes the idea of the three- legged stool-farmer, company and public researchers working together. Right of company refusal begs the credibility question for the Minnesota corn producer, crop consultant and member of the National Corn Growers Association Biotechnology Working Group. It's one he feels should be of concern to the entire industry.

"We are just at the beginning of the trait world," he said. "I think it is in the best interest of the farmer to have the public researcher involved in checking some of this stuff."

The restraints also reflect on the credibility of the partnership that has existed. "I like to be able to respond to the farmers of Indiana when they have questions," said Larry Bledsoe, Extension entomologist, Purdue University. "When I am asked my opinion and I have to say that I can't answer because of a confidentiality agreement with a company, there is silence and blinks from the farmer audience. They feel uncomfortable and so do I."

Technically, if you stick to the legal language, the prohibition would also include full-service ag retailers with plots, farmers who do comparative or analytical plots of any kind and certainly crop consultants and farm managers who do comparisons of products and advise their clients of the results.

Does this mean that corporate legal departments are waiting to swoop down on unsuspecting farmers, retailers, consultants and farm managers? No, of course not...well, probably not. However, they could, even though it would likely be a public relations nightmare. Those individual plots are also not the research that is of concern to the companies.

It is the broader university and other public research institutions that are a concern and the focus of the issue. In order to legally work with biotech crops, these researchers must negotiate permission. The permission may or may not mandate protocols, exclusions and data review. It can and often does mandate confidentiality.

The exception to this requirement is Monsanto, which has signed blanket permission for research with its commercialized biotech seeds with more than 150 institutions. Yet the language remains, and permission, even granted, can be withdrawn.

"It puts the seed company in the gatekeeper role in terms of what they will and will not allow," said Ken Ostlie, Extension entomologist, University of Minnesota. "We are no longer able to actively research where science leads us in the best interest of growers and the public we serve. My dilemma now is do I do as my heart says and do the comparative research and risk getting sued, or do I knuckle under?"

Entomologists Raise Concerns
When Ostlie and other university Extension entomologists met in January to discuss current cooperative research, they raised the issue with attending company representatives. They were told the limitations would remain due to legal concerns.

When 26 of those entomologists sent a letter (names withheld) to the Environmental Protection Agency's biotechnology advisory committee regarding the limitations, the New York Times ran an article about the concerns.

Since then the debate has broadened and the questions sharpened as the advisory committee asked for more information and the National Academy of Sciences requested a report on the issue from the entomologists. Members of the National Corn Growers Association are raising the issue within their organization and the possibility of congressional involvement is being raised.

Defenders of the status quo point to the need for preventing misuse or theft of proprietary technology, controlling irresponsible and improper protocols or inadequate stewardship of traits. Critics point to a desire by some companies to control the flow of information to protect market position and a need for open and unbiased research. Some on both sides suggest there is a lot of miscommunication going on, and most on both sides agree the issue must and can be worked out.

"It's in our interest to enable the research community to do this kind of work," said Eric Sachs, lead for global scientific affairs, Monsanto. "It's in our best interest and the industry's for researchers to understand the products and help growers get the most from them. We are in dialogue with other companies in the industry, talking about the issue in hopes of coming out with a more consistent approach."

Understanding the Ramifications
At first glance, the issue is simply one of permission to do research, but for the researchers involved, the National Academy of Sciences and the industry at large, it goes much deeper. For the first time that anyone can point to, research is being limited on commercial products. For public researchers, it is a damned if they do and damned if they don't situation. If they complain, they fear they will no longer receive permission for even limited research; hence the names withheld in the letter. Some entomologists are speaking out in this article and elsewhere, perhaps putting future research hopes on the line, but they feel it is worth the risk.

"We have to ask permission from each company to do the research, and that gives the company the right to refuse," explained Elson Shields, Extension entomologist, Cornell University, and a spokesman for the group of 26. "Refusal has happened, and it comes in one of several ways. Out right written refusal is rare. Verbal is more common, and the third is endless legal wrangling that costs the research institution so much in legal fees that they say no, or negotiations continue past planting date."

Corn grower Sodeman's concerns were raised when a University of Minnesota research study funded by the Minnesota Corn Growers was stopped when a company pulled approval. In 2007, Ostlie had sought and received permission to compare the Agrisure, Herculex and YieldGard events. For Sodeman and other Minnesota corn growers funding the study, the information was vital.

"We've seen a tremendous increase in problems with the Northern corn rootworm," explained Ostlie. "Most research on transgenic seed has been done on Western corn rootworm. Our corn growers asked for comparative research on the three events, how they affect the rootworm and impact on root injury, lodging and yield."

Syngenta pulled out a year into the study. Reasons given remain unclear, stated Ostlie. It was the first time he had run into such a problem with any company on an approved study. However, each of the four major seed companies was cited by entomologists who signed the complaint letter to the EPA.

"A company may want to minimize the negative consequences of research, but in the long run, it's the truth about these events that is important," said Ostlie. "We have to let science do its job."

Part 2: Letting Science Do Its Job
In our next issue, we will look at the origins of the restraint on research with biotech seeds and its continuing impact, as well as changes in research funding mechanisms that are changing the role of public research in agriculture.