NOTE: Profile of the organisation running the controversial GM wheat trial in Australia.

EXTRACT: “Yes, we do find that it is often the best strategy to get into bed with these companies [MNCs].” – CSIRO’s former chief executive

CSIRO in bed with multinational corporations

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) is promoted as Australia’s pre-eminent public scientific research body. Although ostensibly ‘publicly funded’ CSIRO has, in reality, been encouraged to get 30% of its funding from business with the CSIRO top management encouraging its staff to go to 40%. As a point of comparison, only about 10% of the funding of Europe’s leading plant biotech institute, the John Innes Centre, is thought to come directly from industry although the JIC is considered highly industrially aligned.

According to John Stocker, CSIRO’s former chief executive, ‘Working with the transnationals makes a lot of sense, in the context of market access. There are very few Australian companies that have developed market access in the United States, in Europe and in Japan, the world’s major marketplaces. Yes, we do find that it is often the best strategy to get into bed with these companies.’ (Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1992).

Richard Hindmarsh in an article in the Journal of Australian Political Economy (No 44.), ‘Consolidating Control: Plant Variety Rights, Genes and Seeds’, describes CSIRO as having a long history of involvement with intensive agricultural R&D and collaboration with agribusiness multinationals, and as having become increasingly dependent upon industry funding. The effect of this is ‘to generate convergence between private sector and public sector plant breeding operators.’ Hindmarsh notes, ‘The CSIRO, in keeping with its position of being at the forefront of scientific research, prioritised genetic engineering research in 1979. CSIRO scientists have since been very active in the promotion of GE to the Australian community, and especially to other scientists (Hindmarsh, 1996). In addition, multinational companies are seen as the key avenue to the international commercialisation of biotechnology products and research of both Australian public sector institutions and biotechnology firms.’

Hindmarsh also notes, ‘…the indications are that a Byzantine web of formal contractual obligations and informal connections has emerged between the CSIRO and other public-sector agencies…, universities, small or new biotechnology firms (NBFs), and multinational corporations.’

The corporations listed by Hindmarsh as having direct financial connections with CSIRO include: Agrigenetics, Monsanto, Rhone Poulenc and AgrEvo (later part of Aventis and then Bayer). A collaboration between the CSIRO and Monsanto generated Australia’s first major GM commercial crop. On the day of the announcement of the commercial approval for Bayer’s GM canola (oilseed rape) in Australia, CSIRO announced that Bayer would be extending its lucrative investment in CSIRO ‘to develop modern biotechnology tools applicable to cotton and other crops’. The press release said, ‘ For Bayer CropScience, the alliance with CSIRO is regarded as a model for global cooperation.’

For some it is a model of everything that’s wrong in the relationship between public science and private interests. An article in the journal Australasian Science written by a former CSIRO senior executive accused the head of CSIRO of subverting the CSIRO’s traditional role of public research in favour of lucrative consulting work for government and the private sector. Research into GM crops, with its promise of intellectual property and revenue streams, is ‘in’ at the CSIRO, he reportd; research into organic farming is ‘out’. He described morale among staff as at rock bottom.

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