The British non-profit GMWatch recently revealed the agribusiness takeover of Conabia, the National Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology of Argentina. Conabia is the GMO assessment body of Argentina. According to GMWatch, 26 of 34 its members were either agribusiness company employees or had major conflicts of interest*.
Packing a regulatory agency with conflicted individuals is one way to ensure speedy GMO approvals and Conabia has certainly delivered that. A much more subtle, but ultimately more powerful, way is to bake approval into the structure of the GMO assessment process itself. It is easier than you might think.
I recently attended the latest international conference of GMO regulators, called ISBGMO14, held in Guadalajara, Mexico (June 4-8, 2017). ISBGMO is run by the International Society for Biosafety Research (ISBR). When I first went to this biennial series of conferences, in 2007, just one presentation in the whole four days was by a company. ISBR had some aspirations towards scientific independence from agribusiness.
I went for a second time in 2011, to the ISBGMO held in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Company researchers and executives were frequent speakers and the conference had become an opportunity for agribusiness to present talking points and regulatory initiatives as if they had the blessing of science. This year, in Guadalajara, companies were now on the conference organising committee and even conferring conference travel scholarships from the podium. A former conference organiser and ISBR board member told me that the previous ISBGMO (St. Louis, USA, in 2015) had been almost entirely paid for by Monsanto.
Spreading the industry message
In Guadalajara, industry speakers were clearly working from a scripted list. That list translates as the key regulatory objectives of the biotech industry.
Prominent on that list was “data transportability”. Data transportability is the idea that regulators from different jurisdictions, say India, or the EU, should accept identical biosafety applications. Implementation of data transportability would mean that although each country has unique ecosystems and species, applicants ought not to have to provide studies tailored to each. For example, when it comes to assessing effects on non-target organisms, for example of a GMO crop producing an insecticide, regulators in Australia should accept tests on European ladybird species or earthworms as showing that a GMO cotton can safely be grown there.
The appeal of data transportability for an applicant is clear enough—less cost and less risk of their GMO failing a risk assessment. Not once did I hear mention of an obvious downside to data transportability. The fewer tests to which a novel GMO is subjected the less research there is to detect a significant problem if one exists.
A second standard corporate line was “need to know versus nice to know”. In other words do not ask applicants for more data than they wish to supply. The downsides to this are identical to data transportability. Less data is less testing and less science.