Feedback

Following the publication of "Seeds of Doubt" from June 6-10, 2004, several readers offered feedback. Below is a sampling of their reactions. Want to offer your opinion? Send it to: biotech@sacbee.com. To have your letter considered for the opinion page of The Bee, send it to: viewpoints@sacbee.com.


(June 6, 2004)

Thank you for the wonderful article on GE rice and Mali.

Thank you for writing:

(1) that patent and intellectual property law may constrain and impede innovation and progress;

(2) how research at public expense gets privatized, and then only gets developed and implemented when the new owners can see large short-term profits;

(3) that many cultures on the planet view life and DNA as the common heritage of humanity, and should not be privately owned.

Most of all, thanks for making me feel a bit less isolated, and hopeful that the idea of the "commons" may spread beyond the fringe of those of us who read David Bollier and Lawrence Lessig.

Sincerely,

John Kwasnik
Sacramento


(June 7, 2004)

Having been working in economic and social development activities in Peru for some 40 years, I want to thank you (and your Executive Editor: Rick Rodriguez) for this outstanding series of articles on the impact of cloned wild-rice in Mali. Hopefully these articles will be recognized nationally and worldwide with a reward.

I am sharing this information with colleagues in Peru who have dedicated a lifetime on development activities there.

As long as private enterprise - heavily subsidized by public university research and Pentagon war machines to protect their investments abroad - remains in control of the policies of USAID, the World Bank, BID and all the other regional development banks, we can expect minimal development at best and accelerated UNDERDEVELOPMENT. This is one (not all) of the root causes of world terrorism (Has Bush ever made the connection?).

The State of California finds itself in an accelerated process of underdevelopment with gang behavior exploding in virtually every public school; the health system at the point of collapse; and the highest energy costs ever. The WORSHIP AT THE ALTAR OF PRIVATE ENTERPRISE has prevented any politician from making a peep about setting up a state oil company, a state-run health insurance program and equal funding for every child in school.

Again, keep up the good work.

Un abrazo,

David Bayer
Davis


(June 7, 2004)

Just a quick note to congratulate you on your biotech series. I just finished parts one and two and can't tell you how impressed I am with the quality of these stories. You clearly went to great lengths to identify the key issues to profile and then spent all the time and resources necessary to tell each story in a robust, detailed manner.

I hope you are as pleased with the outcome of your efforts as we are excited to see it presented in such a high profile and thoughtful manner.

Best,

Kimberly Brooks
Director of Communications
Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology
Washington, DC


(June 8, 2004)

Great job on the biotech story! It was very refreshing to read something (part three) that really got into the heart of the problem, the loss of our public universities. I am a Davis grad and I can't believe it when I see what has happened to UCD. Thank you.

Stephen Jones
Wheat breeder
Washington State University
Pullman, Wash.


(June 8, 2004)

Yes, three-quarters of biotech innovations are patented and therefore private property. But, patents only last 20 years. I did not see this fact anywhere in your article. After that point, the knowledge enters the public domain.

Therefore, patented innovations enter the public domain 20 years after development (give or take). And yes, with no patent rights innovations would enter the public domain immediately. However, without patent rights, there would be greatly reduced private funding for biotech research.

Without that private funding, would those same innovations have been developed within that same 20-year period? Perhaps, but unlikely. Therefore, while patent rights give private firms a big advantage during the duration of the patent, they actually speed innovations into the public domain by encouraging private funding of research.

Also, to receive a patent, the inventor must disclose all that is necessary for others to practice the invention. Therefore, this disclosure requirement also reduces the amount of duplicated research, as researchers will have access to others' innovations earlier than if the research were kept secret as proprietary information. Therefore, patent rights do not inhibit dissemination of innovations, they encourage it.

Sincerely,

Ben Eggert
Sacramento


(June 8, 2004)

And I say - thanks, UC Davis, and thanks, Monsanto, for funding research which improves the yield of crops. There are so many hungry people in the world, we need your financial help to develop better seeds and growing methods, especially for poor soils and poor watering conditions found in many places around the world. In this country, where we have so much excess food even the zoos are well fed, we can afford to carry on an elitist argument about organic food vs. high tech food.

I for one welcome the funding from Monsanto and others, to UC Davis and others, to improve the crop health and yield, to reduce starvation and under-nutrition in many developing countries around the world. I vote for the intelligent approach to improving the food supply, not the sky-is-falling approach to preserving the status quo.

Thanks,

Dave Poore
Redding


(June 9, 2004)

First, I wish to commend the reporters of the Sacramento Bee for bringing the issue of biotechnology forward and for their thorough investigation of both sides of the topic. I am disturbed however, at the lack of mention of Monsanto's Terminator gene or the growing problem of "biopiracy."

While the "Seeds of Doubt" articles did cover the convoluted problems of GM foods, genetic contamination, intellectual property rights and end-user licenses, it did not mention these two startling examples of the abuses of a powerful tool. The advent of biotechnology can be likened to the invention of TNT: it was created as a tool for construction, the intent being to help all humankind. Alfred Nobel did not originally intend TNT to be used as the incredibly destructive force it became once it fell into the hands of others; he only saw the marketing and humanitarian uses of a powerful tool.

Likewise, biotechnology and genetically modified foods hold a promise of "feeding the world." A noble cause indeed, but when the idea is compared with the reality of technology such as the Terminator gene, the potential danger of abuse becomes immediately apparent. The Terminator gene, despite its theatrical title, is a device originally intended to protect the intellectual property rights of a company who developed a GM product - it renders sterile the yield of that product (i.e., Roundup Ready products, among others). A farmer may buy one yield's worth of seed from Monsanto, the manufacturer of RR products, but he or she will be unable to plant the seeds of that yield because they are sterile. They must therefore buy a new year's worth of seed from Monsanto.

Fair enough, you might say. That's the prerogative of the farmer to choose that product. But what about the farmer downwind of the biotech farmer? The Terminator gene, along with many of the other results of biotechnology, have been proven capable of infecting or contaminating other plants. There have been few studies conducted showing whether Terminator technology can damage other food crops, and all were conducted by the industry because the FDA has no authority to require testing or in any way limit the use of GM foods. Can we as a nation of consumers, or even as a species, trust any one group of profit-minded individuals with a tool that shows ENORMOUS potential for the monopolization of human food sources?

It's foolish, perhaps even Luddite, to fear a tool simply because of its potential for abuse. The promise of biotechnology cannot be ignored, nor should it be. However, the industry's record for self-governance has not proven to be trustworthy, which leads me to my second point: biopiracy.

All the major GM companies have gotten licenses to conduct "bioprospecting," or prospecting for genetic sequences that might be marketable. This has led, however, to abuses equivalent to pillage. There are several cases of industry leaders finding a useful, native-bred strain - i.e., maize, rice or bananas - bringing it back to the United States, patenting that strain as its own intellectual property, and then under international trade laws as enforced by the World Trade Organization, suing the nation from which he strain originally came for violating intellectual property rights. The nation, under threat of WTO sanctions, is then forced to pay for the right to use the plant its citizens had farmed for generations. This often results in that country borrowing from the World Bank, which in itself can lead to egregious breaches of democratic processes. Examples like these show that the intentions of biotech companies are anything but altruistic.

Therefore, it is my opinion that there should be strict governmental regulation on biotechnology. We cannot trust biotech industries to govern themselves, any more than we can trust wolves to act as sheepdogs, especially when in possession of such incredibly powerful technology.

We as voters need to demand public oversight of biotech companies and stringent testing and labeling, as is done in the European Union.

Although such regulation may be "restrictive to trade" or "bad for business," in the face of these tools' massive potential for destruction and abuse, can we afford to do anything less?

Humbly,

Ethan C. Ireland
Davis


(June 10, 2004)

I am very impressed by your series "Seeds of Doubt" and applaud your much-needed efforts to shine some light on the alarming efforts of the biotech food industry to hijack our universities, regulatory systems, the consumer and the food security of the world. The dubious claims from industry should be widely exposed and thoroughly tested - before being unleashed upon the world. The irreversible nature of their grand experiment is incredibly alarming.

Thank you.

Aaron Israel
San Francisco


(June 12, 2004)

Thank you for what appears to be a well thought out piece, well-researched, well-written, and very important for now and the future. I say this whether one is pro or con. It is only with accurate and well-presented information one can make an intelligent and informative decision as to where they stand on this issue and why.

Sincerely,

Warren Beam
Carmichael


(June 26, 2004)

I congratulate The Bee for its "Seeds of Doubt" series. The public so much needs this information, especially considering the amount of secrecy corporations are allowed through their patenting of genetically modified life.

Wow, I wonder why these corporations don't want to label their products "Genetically Modified"? Do you think most people might prefer more natural food and put them out of business?

I am alarmed that even companies wishing to provide a GM-free product find it impossible to guarantee due to contamination. The more widely accepted genetic engineering of our food sources becomes, the more danger of contamination to traditional food.

What's the answer to world hunger? Sustainable agriculture, with farms designed to serve the populations in their own regions, first and foremost. This solution will also become more necessary in the future, considering the projection of dwindling oil supplies.

Paula Lomazzi
Sacramento


(June 26, 2004)

Now that The Bee has dedicated 20-plus pages of prime printing space to the report "Seeds of Doubt," The Bee should should dedicate at the very least another four pages on the benefits and potential of this new technology. For example, go to China and India and tell us what is the impact of biotechnology there.

Consider the quote at the end of the report, "These were the years, these were the decades, when people had the opportunity to make a choice." Yes, hopefully by that time most people will realize that it was a good choice to adopt biotechnology and that the existing opposition is due mostly to special interests of the "other transnationals," that is the anti-tech environmentalists.

To end with another quote, this time from the leading Mexican ag biotechnologist Luis Herrera Estrella, whom The Bee failed to interview: "Failing to alleviate hunger will not be due to technical limitations but to political and economic decisions."

Sadly The Bee's biased report is certainly aimed to fuel the latter.

Carlos F. Quiros
Davis


(June 26, 2004)

Kudos to The Bee for its in-depth series on agricultural biotechnology. Rather than the white of unfulfilled promises and the black of possible perils that has colored so much of what has been written about ag biotech for decades, it was refreshing to read about the shades of gray affecting, or being affected by, the technology as currently practiced.

The authors were especially thorough in going beyond the scientific debate and into the larger issue of how societies make, or should make, decisions regarding new technologies.

The environmental ethicist cited in the last part in the series is correct, "If people simply don't want to ingest these materials, we ought to respect their autonomy in making that choice." That choice is not only fundamental to democracy, as noted in the article, but fundamental for true capitalism as well.

Belinda Martineau
Davis


(June 26, 2004)

This was not reporting, it was a novel advertised as reporting. The same old themes are there, thinly disguised in order to sell papers - evil greedy corporations, inept corrupt foreign governments, overworked and understaffed regulatory agencies, poor people being poisoned against their will, small business being callously treated by big corporations, evil scientists creating monster crops. Give us all a break.

The simple truth cannot be altered: Ag biotech products are safer for people and the environment than traditional hybrid crops. Throughout history, every hybrid crop ever introduced has crossed genes with the neighboring crop, and we ate it all anyway. We never regulated these hybrids, and never even cared. There was little risk then and there's less risk with the new technology.

In the future, everyone will be wondering what all the fuss was about. The Margaret Mellons and Green Parties of the world will have their rightful place in history, as naysayers crying wolf. This hyped controversy is really a sheep in wolf's clothing.

Wes Ervin
Orangevale


(June 26, 2004)

Re "The public domain," Our views, June 13: The Bee commented on the series "Seeds of Doubt" and concluded that publicly funded research "belongs to the public," implying that discoveries that are not patented are of inherently greater public benefit.

In most technology sectors, nothing could be further from the truth. Without patent protection and the incentive it creates for further investment in early-stage research discoveries, many new technologies would simply languish. Patent protection as a means to stimulate innovation is so fundamental to a capitalist economy that it is spelled out in the United States Constitution.

Before 1980, universities rarely patented new discoveries and very few university-based technologies were developed. Today, university discoveries are often patented and have fueled the development of the biotechnology industry, particularly in California.

There are particular problems in managing agricultural inventions to ensure that humanitarian applications of new technologies are not inadvertently restricted by patents and an organization located at UC Davis (www.pipra.org) has been established to address these problems.

The proposal to place all university inventions in the public domain simply turns back the clock - to the detriment of the public and the California economy.

Alan Bennett
Davis


(June 26, 2004)

The Bee's call for a re-examination of industry-faculty ties was right on. The Bayh-Dole Act opened a Pandora's box of greed and corruption which, unfortunately, is not limited only to patentable technologies: UC Davis professors are allowed to receive outside income for "consulting" activities, which opens the door for "under the table" transfers of technology or expertise developed with public funds; UC personnel engaged in extension activities can use their positions - and the University of California name - to help market products in which they have a financial interest. Even products which are "properly" developed are often sold to companies outside of California, depriving the state of potentially valuable tax revenues.

How can UC Davis focus upon its missions of teaching, research and public service when the efforts of its professors and very highest administrators are directed toward profit? When the university, as Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef asserts, "no longer considers itself a publicly funded institution. ..."

James L. Wallis
Woodland