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The Nature of Scientific Research

Posted by DavidBarkin on 16 Nov 2018 at 20:00 GMT

We are writing to note our concerns about the publication of this article that purports to provide original scientific information about a variety of maize cultivated in the highlands of Mexico. We are a group of senior researchers in diverse fields of the natural, agronomic, and social sciences in Mexico who have carefully examined all the evidence that we have been able to assemble and come to the conclusion that this publication reports a process that involves a serious transgression of the norms of scientific enquiry. The article in question reports the findings of a ten-year long research program that appears to be a violation of the human rights of the many communities currently cultivating the maize varieties in question and a profound disrespect for the centuries of autochthonous genetic improvement in which the ancestors of these communities engaged. Ultimately, it is an example of the practice of biopiracy that has become an all too common practice by well-financed scientific research communities from the North who are collecting biological materials of great cultural and economic value to further their own professional and economic projects.
Some of the elements that lead us to make this strong judgement are:
1) It is clear that the authors did not conduct due diligence about the varieties of “maíz olotón”, the corn seed which they were studying.
a) There are at least two publications that were publically available before they even began their research: in 1993 and 1994 these characteristics were reported. (cf. Vega-Segovia, M.L., R. Ferrera-Cerrato. 1993. Microorganismos del mucigel, rizoplano y rizosfera de maíz “Oloton”, pp. 41-50, In. Pérez Moreno, J., y R. Ferrera-Cerrato. Avances de Investigación. Área de Microbiología de Suelo. Programa de Edafología. Instituto de Recursos Naturales, Colegio de Postgraduados. 194 p.; and González, R.L.P. 1994. Caracterización de microorganismos de mucigel de raíces adventicias y suelo rizosférico de maíz Olotón de la región Mixe, Oaxaca. Tesis de Licenciatura. Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca.)
b) It seems significant that the team did not even learn the local name of the varieties that they collected in the “isolated community in the Sierra Mixe region”. Of particular note is that one of the authors, Dr. Howard-Yana Shapiro, is the Chief Agricultural Officer of Mars, Inc., and had noticed this trait in the 1980s, according to the news release of the University of California, Davis. No information was provided as to who his local informants were and whether they were properly compensated or informed of the role they were playing in an international scientific and commercial endeavor.
c) The research does not mention that this feature was widely known by peasants in the region, who commented on it and had practiced “Autochthonous Maize Breeding” through many generations, that involved seed selection, local seed interchange and introduction of seeds from locations far apart and that their ancestors were quite aware of its special qualities as they had practiced seed selection for generations.
2) The authors were careful to specify that they have proceeded according to the institutional standards of the moment. As the press release from the University of California, Davis, elaborated on the basis of material in the article, states: “The municipal authority and community in the isolated village in the Sierra Mixe region were an integral part of this research project. Biological materials were accessed and utilized under an Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS) Agreement with the community and with permission from the Mexican government. An internationally recognized certificate (ABSCH-IRCC-MX-207343-3) of compliance under the Nagoya Protocol has been issued for such activities.” They go on to say However, this raises several questions:
a) We wonder: what was the “integral” contribution of the community to the research project?
b) We question how the research team, BioN2, Inc., and Mars Inc. plan to share the prestige, further funding for research, and academic credit that the publication of this article might produce with the community.
c) Was any research funded at the Technical University of the Valley of Oaxaca (ITVO) to strengthen its ability to do research in this area or collaborate with the North American interlopers?
d) We wonder whether the ‘municipal authority’ or the village members themselves were informed of the publication and, more relevantly, whether there was any discussion of the global scientific and economic significance of this variety (landrace), as discussed in the same press release and in an article published in the USA Today network of publications.
e) We contacted the appropriate Mexican government authorities and found that the group applied for a research permit in 2015. Thus, the work was on-going for almost a decade because any application was made and the group has not complied with the requirement in this permit to report back every semester on the results of this research.
3) Were the researchers aware of the ethical and financial implications of this “unexplained” collection of seeds, as well as the strong local objections to this activity when the communities are properly informed of its significance? A similar activity, undertaken by anthropologists based at the University of Georgia in Chiapas in 1999 (who created one of the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups funded by the US Government), was strongly questioned by communities in the region and the researchers eventually were obliged to abandon their project. Similar objections have been raised about DuPont’s patenting of Mexican varieties of corn and a contract by San Diego based Diversa Corporation for bioprospecting activities in Mexico. (See also, footnote 1, above.)
4) The research project reported on in PLOS-Biology proceeded for almost a decade, according to the materials at our disposition. We have not been able to identify any effort by the authors, their institutions, or their funders to create a research capacity at the ITVO or any other scientific or academic institution in Mexico. They incorporated one junior researcher from a local University, who received a fellowship from the University of California Mexus Program, but apparently made no additional efforts to collaborate locally or support his Institute.

We are posting this comment because of our concern about the far reaching political, social, economic and cultural implications of a team organized within the United States of America extracting biological materials and conducting field work without a meaningful attempt to inform the affected peoples of its significance. The perfunctory mention of the “tremendous cooperation” of the Agricultural and Environmental Secretariats is further testimony to the lack of understanding of the significance of this project by the Mexicans with whom the researchers came into contact; we were able to confirm that this cooperation was strictly within the limits of bureaucratic procedures.
The farmers engaged in developing and protecting these varieties over the centuries are struggling to conserve and enrich their cultures while also trying to maintain their quality of life and protect their environment. Public policy has discriminated against them for decades, if not centuries, and now they are confronted by an onslaught of highly trained scientists appropriating this material and this knowledge without the least inkling of or concern for its relationship to their culture and future well-being. We could go further to suggest that this example clearly illustrates the very heart of the problem of bio-piracy and resource expropriation, characteristic of this new epoch of conquest through the use of science and technology.
Elena Álvarez-Bullya, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City
David Barkin, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Mexico City
Alejandro Espinoza, Instituto Nacional de Investigac iones Forestales, Agrícolas, Pecuarias, Mexico City
Ronaldo Ferrera-Cerrato, Colegio de Posgraduados en Ciencias Agrícolas, Montecillo, Mexico
Yolanda Massieu, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Mexico City
Antonio Turrent, Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Forestales, Agrícolas, y Pecuarias, Mexico City

No competing interests declared.