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Food & Drink The bad seed

Terminator technology threatens farmers' livelihoods and the time-honored practice of saving seeds


The so-called "suicide seeds" of the future are neither downcast nor despondent. They are suicidal because the seed companies that produce them tinker with their DNA and make them that way: sterile after a single growing season. This trait prevents farmers from replanting genetically modified seeds, a tradition on which millions are economically dependent, and forces them to buy new seed varieties each season, thereby insuring seed companies receive an annual return on technological investments.

According to Pat Mooney, executive director of the ETC Group, which focuses on ecological diversity and sustainability, suicidal tendencies in seeds might soon be widespread. "We know the entire seed trade is pushing to get the technology commercialized," Mooney says.

The technology - known as "terminator" to its detractors and "technology control system" to its proponents - began as a novel idea, developed jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the world's largest cottonseed company, Delta & Pine Land. It is a form of genetic use restriction technology, a broad designation that refers to the use of chemicals to control the expression of plants' genetic traits. GURTs represent a new frontier for genetically modified crops. Since the creation of the FlavrSavr tomato in 1992, scientists have genetically engineered plants through the use of recombinant DNA techniques, imbuing them with qualities such as longer shelf lives and resistance to herbicides.

Industry insiders say the commercialization of terminator technology is right around the corner. "We're still moving ahead with it," confirms Harry Collins, vice president of technology transfer at Delta & Pine Land. "We're very positive about it."

According to Mooney, all seed companies involved in biotechnology currently own patents on terminator technology. He mentions Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, and Dow, who collectively produce more than 90 percent of all GM-seeds used worldwide.

Companies that produce GM seeds are already entitled to patent protections that allow them to dictate specific terms and conditions to their clients. Farmers are often contractually obligated to not re-plant genetically engineered seeds. "The reason genetic engineering is so successful is it allows companies to control a certain amount of agricultural production, in terms of money, that it couldn't control before," says Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety.

Mooney sees terminator technology as the next step in the gene giants' consolidation of global control over agricultural production, an idea to which Collins at least partially concedes. "It is a type of intellectual property protection," he says.

"Nobody's against `the companies` recouping their investments and making a profit," says Tom Buis, vice president of government relations for the National Farmers Union, "but they're going against common agricultural practices that have been around since the beginning of farming."

"Nobody's against `the companies` recouping their investments and making a profit, but they're going against common agricultural practices that have been around since the beginning of farming."

— Tom Buis

"The objective of farming is not to save your seeds, necessarily; it is to produce a higher yield," Collins counters. "If `farmers` want the possibility of getting new technologies that may produce a higher yield and a higher quality of crop, then they may have to accept that they will not save their seeds."

Wes Sims, president of the Texas Farmers Union and a wheat farmer, believes many farmers are reliant on the benefits of genetic engineering. "I don't think you could stay in business if you don't use GM crops." According to the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, in 2004, Texas farmers planted 58 percent of their cotton crop (the largest cotton crop in the nation) with GM varieties, and nationally the number of GM crops planted in the United States has been on a precipitous rise since 1996, increasing 40-fold.

Yet, a 2002 report by the Soil Association on the impacts of GM crops on North American farmers between 1996 and 2001, found that farmers did not realize increased yields overall, and that the main GM variety - Roundup Ready Soya - actually yielded 6 to 11 percent less than non-GM varieties.

Despite these findings, GM crops currently populate more than 167 million acres of land worldwide. As a result, environmental hazards unique to the realm of genetic engineering have emerged. Collins cites the prevention of "gene flow" - the transfer of genes from GM crops to related crops in other fields - as the primary reason his company developed terminator technology. He says the built-in gene for sterility prevents the seeds from cross-pollinating with other crops.

Gurian-Sherman agrees that gene flow is a serious issue. "You certainly don't want heart medicine in your corn flakes," he says. Nonetheless, he does not consider suicide seeds a viable solution. "There's no need for this technology. There are other potential alternatives `to preventing gene flow` that are as far along or further along than this technology."

Mooney points out the irony of genetically sterilizing seeds to contain pollution from GM crops. "The companies that are pushing the terminator caused GM contamination in the first place," he says.

Another concern is that the sterilizing gene itself may migrate into neighboring fields. "There's one trait that doesn't spread, and that's sterility," says Collins, although he adds that a "minute amount" of contamination could occur. Such an argument does little to console detractors like Mooney. "We don't know if the `technology` would work effectively," he says.

In March 2006, an advisory body to the United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity will consider whether suicide seeds should be commercialized. If they are, Buis believes the impact would be "significant" on the world's farmers, who already pay a technology fee on top of the cost of GM seeds. "It's more control for the companies that own the technology," he says.

By Brian Chasnoff