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What role do academic scientists, i.e. researchers at universities and government labs, play in the development of new GMOs? Surely it is not only scientists working for biotech companies who are interested in developing crops that are more nutrientefficient, insectresistant, etc.?

A:Expert Answer

Academic researchers are an odd lot. They (we) could make a few more bucks in industry, would not have to write grants (which are rejected 90 percent of the time if we’re really good) and would not have “publish or perish” hanging over our heads. We do it because having a public science presence, and working for the citizens of our states and country, is a truly important mission.

We work for you. And guess what? We can’t play in transgenic plant (GMO) space. The amount of regulation, the extremely expensive testing, the many years of validation — we just don't have the budgets to do it.
Sadly, I can name several examples from the floor of the building I work in where scientists have used GM to fortify foods with folate and other vitamins, made GM plants that stand up to disease and require no insect/fungicide sprays and plants that survive stress (like drought and flood) better than any others. Those examples are within 30 meters of where I'm sitting now. Guess how many will be commercialized? None. Zero. Zilch.
Why? It costs too much, and if these are to be given away or distributed at low cost, how would we pay for the release? Who loses? The needy, the environment and farmers.
That said, you probably can find some instance of a big biotech company that has licensed a trait or genetic line. We're really good at discovering that stuff. When we can't release it on our own, a company may pay to use it, but not very often.
For the most part, we're blocked from participating because of the high entry barriers. That's pretty sad. The GMO papaya was a public product. It saved an industry and to this day is hugely successful. It is a perfect example of how the process should work.
If it had happened in a public lab today, the anti-GMO movement would have killed it and ended papaya farming in Hawaii. If you don't believe that, look at how hard the anti-GM movement is trying to stop any innovation in apple, citrus or chestnut — innovations that are from academic labs that could help farming and ecology.
Maybe it will change, I sure hope so. It is hard to dream about ways to help solve problems for farmers in your state, do the experiment and see it work and then watch it die in your seed storage because it can't be commercialized.
And, despite the myth, almost none of us gets any corporate support. At my university it was about 1 percent, and that was grants to a few labs at best. The rest of us battle on. Thanks for an excellent question.

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