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An earlier version of this article was published in the November, 1998 issue of Multinational Monitor.
A newly patented invention for genetic seed sterilization—a technique that renders farm-saved seed sterile—has ignited controversy and debate worldwide on the right of farmers to save seed and the dramatic consolidation of corporate power over plant genetic resources. The owners of the patent refer to it as a "technology protection system," but critics say it's a lethal technology and have dubbed it "the Terminator." The multinational seed industry says that genetic seed sterilization will spur investment in plant breeding worldwide, opponents say it imperils global food security and poses unacceptable risks to the environment.
Whereas hybrid seeds deliver the benefit of hybrid vigor and increased yields, Terminator seeds offer no agronomic benefits to farmers.
It could be years before Terminator seeds are commercially available, but the specter of genetic seed sterilization is so serious that the world's largest network of agricultural researchers recently adopted a policy prohibiting the use of the technology in its Third World plant breeding programs. India's agriculture minister says he will ban the import of Terminator seeds because of the potential harm to Indian agriculture. (1) The topic of genetic seed sterilization, and its consequences for farmers and the environment, is on the 1999 agenda of two United Nations agencies. In September 1998 a subsidiary of agrochemical and biotech giant, Monsanto, entered into negotiations with the US Department of Agriculture (co-owner of the patent) for an exclusive license on the Terminator technology. In reaction, thousands of individuals from over 60 countries have bombarded US Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman with letters and e-mail messages of protest, demanding that USDA cease negotiations with Monsanto, and abandon all patents and research on the Terminator technology.
What is the Terminator Technology?
On March 3, 1998 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a Mississippi-based seed company, Delta & Pine Land Co., received US patent no. 5,723,765 on a technique that genetically alters seed so that it will not germinate if re-planted the following season. (2) The technology aims to prevent farmers from saving seed from their harvest, thus forcing them to return to the commercial seed market every year.
The Terminator patent covers plants and seeds of all species, including both transgenic (genetically engineered) and conventionally bred seeds. The developers of the new technology say that their technique to prohibit seed saving is still in the product development stage and won't be available commercially until 2004.
How do scientists genetically engineer plants to kill their own seeds? The patented technique involves a cascade of complex interactions involving two bacterial genes and one plant gene. Before sale, seeds are soaked in a common antibiotic, tetracycline, a chemical that activates a molecular switch in one of the bacterial genes. The introduced plant gene isn't activated until after the farmer produces a crop and the seed is almost finished maturing. The gene produces a toxic protein that kills the seed embryo in late stages of development.
... Over 1.4 billion people, mainly resource-poor farmers, depend on farm-saved seed and seeds exchanged with their neighbors as their primary seed source.
Terminator technology differs from hybrid seed technology that was developed earlier in this century. Farmers don't save hybrid seed because the seed does not "breed true"-it won't perform as well when saved and replanted. Whereas hybrid seeds deliver the benefit of hybrid vigor and increased yields, Terminator seeds offer no agronomic benefits to farmers, they are simply designed to insure seed industry profits. Plant breeders have never successfully hybridized many of the world's most important crops-such as wheat, rice, soybeans and cotton. In theory, the Terminator technology gives the seed industry the ability to "genetically neuter" all of the world's crops, creating greater dependency on proprietary seeds and their companion chemicals.
Terminator Seeds Rejected by Global Network of Agriculture Experts.
The Terminator-and related genetic seed sterilization technology-has been banned from the crop breeding programs of the world's largest international agricultural research network-the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). On October 30, 1998 the CGIAR adopted the following policy:The CGIAR will not incorporate into its breeding materials any genetic systems designed to prevent seed germination. This is in recognition of
(a) concerns over potential risks of its inadvertent or unintended spread through pollen;
(b) the possibilities of sale or exchange of viable seed for planting;
(c) the importance of farm-saved seed, particularly to resource-poor farmers;
(d) potential negative impacts on genetic diversity; and
(e) the importance of farmer selection and breeding for sustainable agriculture."
Engineering seed sterility in the world's major food crops is a logical goal for the multinational seed industry because around three-quarters of the world's farmers routinely save seed from their harvest for re-planting the following season. (3) If farmers save commercial seed, the company won't get repeat business, and profits take a nosedive. Without a technology protection system to prevent "unauthorized" seed saving, seed companies argue that they can't earn a fair return on their investment. Melvin J. Oliver, a USDA molecular biologist and the primary inventor of the technology, likens seed saving to theft of intellectual property. "My main interest is the protection of American technology. Our mission is to protect US agriculture, and to make us competitive in the face of foreign competition. Without this, there is no way of protecting the technology [patented seed]," said Oliver. (4)
But seeds aren't just another patented technology; they are the foundation of global food security. Farmers have been saving seed from their harvest for 12,000 years. According to the United Nations, over 1.4 billion people, mainly resource-poor farmers, depend on farm-saved seed and seeds exchanged with their neighbors as their primary seed source. (5)
What's so important about the right of farmers to save seed?
Farmers aren't simply "saving" seed; they are selecting seeds and adapting their plants for local use. In essence, farmers are plant breeders who are adapting their crops to specific farming conditions and needs. Since most of the world's poor farmers live in marginal farm environments (e.g., poor soils, and little rainfall) and don't have money to buy commercial seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, they depend on plants that survive and produce under adverse conditions year after year. In the process, resource-poor farmers are stewards of genetic diversity. Poor farmers in the tropics and sub-tropics produce 15 to 20% of the world's food supply (6); they also maintain diverse crop varieties that are a source of genetic diversity for the world's plant breeders and genetic engineers. If farmers lose the right to save seed-they lose the ability to select seed and adapt crops to their unique farming conditions. If farmers eat or abandon their traditional seeds in the process of adopting Terminator seeds, centuries of crop genetic diversity could be lost forever.
Underscoring the company's aim to commercialize the technology worldwide, patents are pending on the Terminator technology in 87 countries.
Impact in the South
According to both USDA and Delta & Pine Land, the Terminator technology is aimed primarily at seed markets in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Murray Robinson, the president of Delta & Pine Land, told a US seed trade journal that his company's seed sterilizing technology could be used on over 1 billion acres worldwide (an area the size of South Asia), and that it could generate revenues for his company in excess of $1 billion per annum. (7) Robinson says that the newly patented technique will provide seed companies with a "safe avenue" for introducing their new proprietary technologies into giant, untapped seed markets such as China, India and Pakistan. (8) Underscoring the company's aim to commercialize the technology worldwide, patents are pending on the Terminator technology in 87 countries.
Will Farmers Have a Choice?
Monsanto and the USDA are quick to point out that farmers will not buy seed that does not bring them benefits. Farmers make rational choices, they argue, and no one will force them to use Terminator seeds. According to Harry Collins, Vice-President of Technology Transfer for Delta & Pine Land Co., "Protection systems will not limit the number of choices for the farmer. On the contrary, these systems will help farmers in all areas of the world gain access to the most technologically advanced tools and products available to produce more profitable crops." Collins also argues that traditional farming practices put resource-poor farmers at a distinct disadvantage:"The centuries old practice of farmer saved seed is really a gross disadvantage to third world farmers who inadvertently become locked into obsolete varieties because of their taking the "easy road" and not planting newer, more productive varieties." (9)
World's Leading Seed Companies
Top 10 = $6,933 million.
Company 1997 Revenue (US) Millions Pioneer Hi-Bred Intl. (USA) $1,784 Monsanto/American Home Products (USA) $1,320 (estimate) Novartis (Switzerland) $928 Groupe Limagrain (France) $686 Advanta (UK and Netherlands) $437 AgriBiotech, Inc. (USA) $425 Grupo Pulsar/Seminis/ELM (Mexico) $375 Sakata (Japan) $349 KWS AG (Germany) $329 Takii (Japan) $300 (estimate)
The top 10 account for 30% of $23 billion seed trade worldwide. Source: RAFI
"Those who argue that farmers can always say 'no' to Terminator seeds are completely out-of-touch with the economic reality of poor farmers..."
Critics of the Terminator technology disagree. "Those who argue that farmers can always say 'no' to Terminator seeds are completely out-of-touch with the economic reality of poor farmers," says Pat Mooney, Executive Director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a Canadian-based civil society organization that has spearheaded the anti-Terminator campaign. "A defining feature of poverty is the lack of choice," adds Mooney. Some years ago in Zimbabwe, for example, the government decreed that subsistence maize farmers had to abandon their open-pollinated varieties and adopt maize hybrids. The Indonesian government has insisted that the major rice growing regions of that country can only plant high-yielding varieties from the International Rice Research Institute or its national counterparts. In the Philippines, credit schemes and extension pressure forced many farming communities to surrender their traditional seeds in favor of government-certified varieties. Credit and extension programs in Chile have sometimes implicitly obliged poor farmers to accept plant varieties they did not want. In Brazil, farmers in some areas must select from a government-maintained list of varieties in order to obtain commercial credit. Poor farmers are very often tenant farmers subject to pressure from landowners, commercial creditors, government extension workers and those determining access to water irrigation.
... The reality is that farmers may be increasingly vulnerable and have fewer options in the marketplace.
According to RAFI, market choices must also be examined in the context of privatization of plant breeding and rapid consolidation in the global seed industry. Today, the top 10 seed corporations control 30% of the $23 billion commercial seed market worldwide. (10) Monsanto, dubbed the "Microsoft of Microbiology" by RAFI, has spent over $8 billion acquiring seed and biotech companies and their strategic patents since 1996. In 1998, Monsanto swallowed 2 of the world's top 10 seed companies (Dekalb Genetics and Cargill's international seed division). Industry analysts predict that an estimated 26 million hectares of genetically engineered crops will be grown worldwide in 1998 and that 80% of the total (20 million hectares) will be planted in Monsanto's bioengineered seeds. (11) Monsanto is rapidly expanding market share in the South. In Argentina, Monsanto already controls over half of the maize seed market, and Monsanto seeds are expected to cover 70% of Argentina's soybean fields in 1998/99. Monsanto officials confidently predict that the company will control 50% of the Brazilian soybean seed market within 3 years. (12) Given Monsanto's dominance in some markets, will farmers really have choices? In light of seed industry consolidation and rapid declines in public sector plant breeding, the reality is that farmers may be increasingly vulnerable and have fewer options in the marketplace.
"...The Terminator could drive millions of farmers out of plant breeding and, since no one else will breed for their needs, out of agriculture altogether."
Advocates of the Terminator technology claim that it will be an incentive to plant breeding investment, and a boon to food production in the South because seed companies will have an incentive to invest in crops that have long been ignored by the commercial seed industry. But private companies are seldom interested in developing plant varieties for poor farmers because they know the farmers can't pay.
Many Third World non-governmental organizations (NGOs) fear that public plant breeders will be pressured by cash-starved institutes to adopt the Terminator technique in order to prevent "unauthorized" seed saving and to recoup their research investment. Neth Dano of the Philippines-based Southeast Asian Institute for Community Education (SEARICE) explains:Public breeders wanting access to patented genes and traits will be forced to adopt the Terminator as a licensing requirement. The better-off farmers in the valleys will be forced to pay. Their poor neighbors on the hillsides will no longer be able to able to exchange breeding material with their counterparts in the valleys. Far from improving plant breeding, the Terminator could drive millions of farmers out of plant breeding and, since no one else will breed for their needs, out of agriculture altogether. (13)
Is it Safe?
Opinions vary widely on the potential ecological risks associated with genetically engineered Terminator seeds. USDA's "Fact Sheet" on Terminator asserts that "there appear to be no crop or food safety risks" associated with the new technology. (14) Monsanto claims that genetic seed sterilization will actually enhance the environmental safety of genetically engineered crops because it offers a new tool for controlling the unintended "escape" of genes from transgenic crops to wild relatives planted nearby. (15) Industry advocates claim that engineered sterility offers a built-in safety feature because if genes from a Terminator crop escape into the wild, the seed produced from unwanted pollination will not germinate. (16)
But many scientists disagree. "Without a substantial amount of food safety and ecological testing, which to my knowledge has not been done, it is impossible to conclude that crops containing the terminator genes are safe for human consumption and the environment," says Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists. (17)
Martha Crouch, a molecular biologist at Indiana University, concludes that the seed sterilizing technology poses potential ecological risks, and she says that it "is unrealistic" to depend on Terminator to prevent genetically engineered organisms or their traits from spreading. (18) Crouch concludes that, under certain conditions, the sterility trait from Terminator crops will spread via pollen to surrounding plants, and it will make seeds of those plants sterile. This could become a serious problem for farmers whose fields are close to the Terminator crop. Crouch writes:
"If many seeds die, it will make saving seed untenable for the adjacent farmer. Even if only a few seeds die, they will contain the toxin and any other proteins engineered into the Terminator-protected variety. These new "components" may make the seed unusable for certain purposes." (18)
There are many unanswered questions. Will dead seeds have the same properties as living seeds? Asks Crouch. Will the Terminator gene mutate and change characteristics in some dangerous way? Will seeds containing the toxin made by the Terminator be safe to eat? Will the massive quantity of antibiotics that is used to trigger the Terminator gene be harmful to soil organisms, to wildlife, to human health? These are issues that have not been publicly addressed, or even acknowledged, by USDA or Monsanto.
Ultimately, the Terminator technology represents much more than a single patent held by a single company. Zeneca, the UK-based agrochemical giant, holds a similar patent on genetic seed sterilization. The reality is that every major life industry enterprise hopes to develop its own version of suicide seeds in the coming years. The threat is not just a patent, but a technology. For the multinational seed industry, genetic seed sterilization is the Holy Grail of biotechnology. It gives them a powerful biological tool to prevent farmers from saving seed and to guarantee monopoly sales. Combined with the power of exclusive monopoly patents that make it illegal for farmers to save patented seeds, the life industry is poised to gain unprecedented control over the future of agriculture.
For the multinational seed industry, genetic seed sterilization is the holy grail of biotechnology. It gives them a powerful biological tool to prevent farmers from saving seed and to guarantee monopoly sales.
According to RAFI, corporations that sell both seeds and pesticides aim to develop more sophisticated versions of the Terminator technology in the 21st century. A possible future scenario: The technology demonstrates that an external chemical can be used to activate or de-activate genetic traits in plants. Once perfected, the agrochemical and seed industry may have a technology in hand to control a wide range of genetic traits that can be switched on and off with chemical "switches." Commercially, companies would prefer to "trigger" the suicide sequence with a proprietary pesticide. In this way, life industry companies can shift the costs to the farmer while increasing chemical sales.
Worldwide, there is an avalanche of public opposition to Terminator technology. Most recently, Indian farmers staged massive protests against Monsanto's transgenic crops, asserting that acceptance of any bio-engineered crops would ultimately lead to the introduction of Terminator seeds. On December 10, 1998 Monsanto held a high-level meeting to consider whether or not to abandon its high-profile quest for an exclusive license on the Terminator technology. (19)
RAFI cautions that Monsanto's recent attempt to distance itself from Terminator is likely a public relations ploy. "Unfortunately, this isn't goodbye to Terminator, it's probably hasta la vista," explains Pat Mooney, "If Monsanto does what rumors suggest, and low-keys the Terminator, it's likely that the company's research on genetic seed sterilization will move under-ground where it can be conducted away from public scrutiny and negative publicity." But Mooney adds, "We can take heart in knowing that the Terminator can be terminated. We can win this fight. But the battle is far from over."
Even if USDA surrenders exclusive licensing rights to Monsanto, the battle against Terminator technology will not be won or lost in the United States. Internationally, public sentiment is overwhelmingly against Terminator because it's bad for farmers, global food security and the environment. Scientists, governments and civil society organizations are seeking a ban on the Terminator technology at the national and international level. Under the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) chapter of the World Trade Agreement countries may reject patents in order to protect "ordre public" (public morality) and the environment. (20) Terminator technology is on the agenda at both the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 1999. With global opposition crystallizing, either governments or a United Nations agency may eventually take the Terminator issue before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
For current information on the global campaign to ban Terminator, and to send a letter of protest to public officials, go to RAFI's web site: http://www.rafi.org
Monsanto's Estimated Annual Seed Revenues
Dekalb $451 million Cargill Intl. Seed Division $300 million Asgrow and Hartz combined $287 million Delta & Pine Land $183 million Holden's Foundation Seed $35 million Plant Breeding International (UK) $26 million Stoneville Pedigreed $11.7 million Total: US $1,320 million
1. Anonymous, India Wary of Terminator, Nature Biotechnology, Vol 16, September, 1998, p. 804.
2. Delta and Pine Land Company, Delta and Pine Land Company and the USDA Announce Receipt of Varietal Crop Protection System Patent, March 3, 1998. On the internet: http://biz.yahoo.com/prnews/980303/ms_delta_p_1.html The joint invention is the result of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) signed in 1993. US law provides that the government-owned CRADA invention will be licensed exclusively to the private sector partner.
3. The statistic on the practice of farm-saved seed comes from Geneflow, On-Farm Conservation, International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Rome, 1998, p. 10.
4. RAFI interviewed Melvin Oliver, USDA molecular biologist, by phone on March 10 & 12, 1998.
5. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Background Documentation prepared for the International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources), FAO, Rome, 1996.
6. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Background Documentation prepared for the International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources), FAO, Rome, 1996.
7. Robinson was interviewed by Bill Freiberg, Is Delta and Pine Land's Terminator Gene a Billion Dollar Discovery? Seeds and Crop Digest, May/June, 1998.
8. Bill Freiberg, Is Delta and Pine Land's Terminator Gene a Billion Dollar Discovery? Seeds and Crop Digest, May/June, 1998.
9. Collins, H. New Technology and Modernizing World Agriculture. Unpublished paper distributed by Dr. Collins at the June, 1998 meeting of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in Rome.
10. Rural Advancement Foundation International, Seed Industry Consolidation 1998: Who Owns Whom? RAFI Communique, July/August, 1998.On the internet: http://www.rafi.ca
11. Robinson, Elton, Will Monsanto and Cyanamid Merge Genes, Too? Delta Farm Press, Vol. 55, No. 27, July 3, 1998.
12. Stewart, Phil. Reuters. "Monsanto to Double Brazil Sales," October 29, 1998.
13. RAFI Press release, Terminating Food Security, March 20, 1998.
14. USDA, Fact Sheet: Why USDA's Technology Protection System (a.k.a. "Terminator") Benefits Agriculture-A Discovery to Spur New Crop Improvement, USDA, October, 1998.
15. Ramsay, J. Unpublished paper distributed by Jonathan Ramsay of Monsanto Europe, Brussels, August 1998, JONATHAN.RAMSAY@MONSANTO.COM
16. Collins, H. New Technology and Modernizing World Agriculture. Unpublished paper distributed by Dr. Collins at the June, 1998 meeting of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in Rome.
17. Telephone interview with Jane Rissler, November 14, 1998.
18. Crouch, Martha L., How the Terminator terminates: an explanation for the non-scientist of a remarkable patent for killing second generation seeds of crop plants, An Occasional paper of The Edmonds Institute, 1998. 19. RAFI News Release, Monsanto Terminates Terminator?...or is the Monster just taking its own sterility strategy underground? 11 December 1998. Available on RAFI's web site: http://www.rafi.org
20. Article 27(2) of GATT TRIPS says that countries may reject patents to "protect ordre public or morality, including to protect human, animal or plant life or health or to avoid serious prejudice to the environment."