Criticising the GM industry

December 11th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 15 Comments »

I just finished recording Any Questions on Radio 4 (you can hear the programme here). Since it was recorded in a pesticides research base, I was hoping for a question on GM, because there’s an interesting dark corner here that needs a bit more attention.

Regular readers will know that I’m very critical of the pharmaceutical industry, because they often fail to conduct fair, transparent trials, lots of data goes missing in action, and so on.

Interestingly – and not a lot of people know this – the same holds for GM. The evidence on increased crop yields from GM isn’t brilliant, but more importantly, every time you buy a seed from Syngenta, Monsanto, or any big GM company, you compulsorily “agree” to an agreement saying that you will not do any comparative trials of this seed against any competitors. This means that the industry has complete control over the trials that are done on its products.

I think this is wrong.

Anyway, after the show I was approached by the head of comms for Syngenta, he asked me if I would come and talk to their staff, I said I’d love to as long as it was about this issue, and as long as I could record my talk and the discussion to post on unedited, and he said yes.

So that’ll be fun.

Read more about the “no tests” GM agreement in this Scientific American editorial, here:

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15 Responses

  1. mus said,

    December 11, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    is that even a legal contract? does it hold up in court? it’s like (wait for the car analogy) Ford would prohibit everyone to crash test its cars. wow. what chutzpah.

  2. danielmcl said,

    December 12, 2009 at 1:14 am

    If I steal the seeds and do some comparative trials am I bound by the same agreement? Not that I’m condoning theft mind you.

  3. Mitton said,

    December 12, 2009 at 11:45 am

    This is a strong argument for publicly funded GM research. If we choose to leave this technology in the hands of big business we can hardly complain when they use it to make a profit.

  4. CoralBloom said,

    December 12, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    It strikes me our university agriculture and plant science departments should be getting involved with spin-offs in a big way to counter this.
    Legal or not, mortgage or not, could you really sleep at night after a day working with an organisation that thinks the contracts are reasonable?

  5. muscleman said,

    December 12, 2009 at 4:00 pm


    The problem is that who will fund the trials if run by university depts? It is the same problem wrt pharmaceutical companies and trials, only the companies have the money to do trials of the necessary size.

    Government would have to step in and pay big to finance such things and if other countries will benefit from the knowledge then why would they?

  6. Sili said,

    December 12, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    At least it’s awesome of Syngenta to engage you on the issue and perhaps listen.

    Of course, if they try to pay you off, not so much, but I find it hard to believe they’ll be that stupid.

    Good luck!

  7. Terrible Al said,

    December 12, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    One of the guys at work recently got a chemical formulation sample with a Licence Agreement on the label, stating that we’re not allowed to actually investigate the composition of the sample (HPLC, MS etc). I think his attitude was “bollocks to that” as he sent a sample to analytical.

  8. Michael Grayer said,

    December 12, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    Ah, the joys of the End User License Agreement…

  9. CampFreddie said,

    December 14, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    This is just insane. I’m not against GM technology, but some of the actions of GM crop producers are just astounding.
    The regulators should introduce a requirement that seed must not be sold under agreements that prevent independent testing.

  10. arabidopsis said,

    December 14, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    There is an immense amount of this type of research done at universities, government labs (USDA in the US), and at independent research institutes in both the UK and the US. Ringspot virus-resistant papaya is a good example of a variety grown commercially that was not developed by an agribusiness monolith. It saved the Hawaiian papaya industry, and the seeds are distributed without restrictive user agreements.

    Additionally, increasing yield is not always the goal of crop improvement projects. Instead, introducing a trait such as disease-resistance reduces the amount of pesticides the grower must purchase (very expensive) and use. Disease resistance genes can take many years to be introduced by traditional breeding but can be introduced in months by molecular methods.

  11. bgamsa said,

    December 14, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    These types of restrictions are also common with Database software. See for example

  12. Xobbo said,

    December 15, 2009 at 7:00 am

    Hmm… “You can only use our products if you promise not to test whether they work or not”.

    They might as well just carry round a flashing neon sign saying “We are corrupt”!

  13. MedsVsTherapy said,

    December 17, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    Stunning. Has anyone told Consumer’s Union, publisher of Comsumer Reports? It would be just like them to go rent some fields, and throw down some seed, and in their typical style, give a straight story. Or maybe one of these radical envoronmental groups could do the same – except that this would not be done with the hydroponics and grow-lites in the closet and such.

  14. MedsVsTherapy said,

    December 17, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    another stray thought: if it is not observable, replicable, and falsifiable, then it is not science. pretty close, but not science.

  15. lukeg said,

    December 27, 2009 at 12:26 am

    Wow! When’s the talk? I am excited about this already.