The USDA claims to be the “people’s department” – committed to enhancing the quality of life of all Americans. Central to the USDA’s stated mission is ensuring safe, affordable and nutritious food, protecting agricultural lands, and supporting rural communities. This mission portrays a department working in and for the public interest.
We urge the ACAB to bring this mission to the forefront of current discussions. A clear public interest mandate is essential to assessing the role of the USDA in biotechnology – and the role of biotechnology in agriculture.
Therefore, we ask ACAB to examine the following questions:
- What criteria are currently used by the USDA to ensure that departmental policies serve the public interest?
- How are existing USDA regulations and USDA-funded research on biotechnology justified under a public interest mandate?
- What changes will be made to ensure that future policies will in fact benefit “the people”?
Defining a Public Interest Agenda
Public interest research has been defined in several recent publications as research that aims at developing knowledge and/or technologies that increase the commonwealth. This includes protection against known and potential harms, as well as contributing positively to public and environmental well-being.
A public interest agenda can be evaluated through the following questions.
Who are the primary, direct beneficiaries of policies?
Whose problems are being addressed?
How are potential benefits distributed throughout society?
Who bears the costs or risks?
- Decision-making process.
Who is included in the decision-making process?
How and when are public views solicited?
How are public values acknowledged and incorporated into decision-making?
- Disclosure and availability of results.
Has adequate and timely information been made available to allow meaningful, well-informed public dialogue and participation?
Are regulatory decisions open to independent review and intervention?
Are research results and products kept in public domain?
USDA Policy and the Public Interest
With the above questions as a guide, we can ask whether current USDA policies on biotechnology are in the public interest. Clearly, the USDA is supportive of agricultural biotechnology: the department provides funds for research and development of genetically engineered crops; USDA regulations state that biotechnology products and processes are not inherently different from other technologies; and Dan Glickman opened the ACAB meetings by calling for policies that “maximize the best that agricultural biotechnology has to offer” (USDA news release No. 0103.00).
- Who are the direct beneficiaries of USDA policies on biotechnology? An often-cited rationale for biotechnology development is that genetically engineered crops and livestock will benefit all US citizens – and eventually all of the world’s growing population – by providing higher yields and greater food choices, and by reducing the use of agrochemicals.However, evidence to support or refute these claims has been published only in the last few years, following almost two decades of government-supported research and development. Presumed public benefits have been used as an underlying justification for biotechnology, but these assumptions were not actively or adequately tested before the government made significant commitments to this technology. Results from recent studies on yield and efficacy of genetically engineered crops are inconclusive. As might be expected of any living organism, these crops are greatly affected by local growing conditions, agricultural practices and soil quality.
While there is growing evidence that genetically engineered crops pose significant health and environmental hazards, widespread and direct public benefits from agricultural biotechnology remain an assumption and a promise. In contrast, private sector biotechnology companies have gained enormously from this technology, in terms of direct financial benefits, as well as increased control over US food and agricultural systems. This distribution of harms and benefits is not consistent with a public interest mandate.
- Has the public been included in decision-making processes? As with investigations of potential harms and benefits, public involvement in biotechnology policy-making is a case of too little, too late. Commitment of, and collaboration between, the government and the private sector preceded open public debate on the need or desire for agricultural biotechnology. More recent efforts to solicit public input is, of course, welcomed. But this influence is necessarily limited now that the biotechnology industry is firmly entrenched in US policies on agriculture, science and trade.How can the USDA claim to serve “the people”, if these people have not been consulted and their views not included in policy-making? Open processes are not simply a matter of public education, aimed toward greater acceptance of government policies. Rather, it is a fundamental commitment and primary responsibility of a public institution.
- Do USDA policies ensure appropriate disclosure of data and availability of research results?In fact, several government policies on disclosure of information and intellectual property rights are in direct conflict with a public interest mandate. Regulatory decisions on the release of genetically engineered crops are currently made without the insight and impartiality provided by broad peer review. Confidentiality of data submitted by applicants precludes independent assessment and critique – hallmarks of credible science and public interest research.
The Federal Technology Transfer Act permits “cooperative” agreements among federal agencies, the private sector and universities. These agreements allow resource-sharing among institutions: the public sector usually provides researchers and facilities; the private sector usually contributes funds. Products resulting from such collaborations may be patented, licensed or commercialised. In effect, government employees and/or the private sector may gain direct financial benefits from research conducted with public resources.
The most egregious example of USDA – supported research that breaches a commitment to the public interest is the “Terminator Technology” or “Technology Protection System”. As both names suggest, this technology aims to protect the investments of private corporations, but threatens to harm food systems, agricultural land and rural communities. Furthermore, this is a patented, proprietary technology designed specifically to protect other patented technologies, thereby twice removing agricultural crops from the public domain. That the USDA should be actively involved in the development and patenting of this technology is a clear misuse of public funds and public trust.
The following should be of highest priority in ACAB discussions.
- USDA must establish a process for ensuring polices are in the public interest. USDA should adopt a working definition of “public interest” that is consistent with its mission statement. Criteria and processes for evaluating policies in terms of the public interest should be clarified and publicised. A breakdown of current and past USDA spending should be made explicit and readily available.
- USDA must provide comparable resources to develop alternatives to agricultural biotechnology. Claims that agricultural biotechnology is necessary and beneficial cannot be evaluated if alternatives to biotechnology are not equally supported. Funding and resources for low-input sustainable agriculture must be vastly increased before valid comparisons can be made.
- USDA must establish a peer review process for regulatory decisions. All regulatory decisions on biotechnology products must be subject to open, interdisciplinary peer review. Such a review is required both for past and pending decisions, and should be used to determine if further products should be approved.
- USDA must stop all technology transfers under the FTTA. Using public resources to develop proprietary technologies is unacceptable; the results of publically funded research should remain in public domain. An immediate review of policies on intellectual property rights in general, and the FTTA specifically, is necessary before research and development agreements between the government and the private sector are permitted to continue.
- USDA must establish a process for public participation in decision-making. The foundation of a public interest agenda is ongoing and requires effective participation of citizens. A process is needed for incorporating citizens views into the early and subsequent stages of policy-making, and for increasing access to relevant information.