When patents on Terminator seeds first came to light nine years ago, even the most jaded among us were stunned by the audacious corporate greed manifested by this novel (and complex) gene engineering technique. Terminator refers to crops that are genetically modified to render sterile seeds at harvest - the equivalent of a 'biological patent' that would prevent farmers from re-planting harvested seeds and guarantee perpetual sales for the commercial seed industry. 'Suicide seeds' are surely one of the most immoral applications of genetic engineering and an egregious use of taxpayer money. Terminator was jointly developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the multinational seed industry.
One multinational seed company that vowed to commercialize the technology predicted that its suicide seeds would be used on millions of acres of cropland worldwide, providing a safe avenue to introduce commercial seeds in the developing world[i] where an estimated 1.4 billion people depend on farm-saved seed. The revelation made a mockery of the biotech industry's promise to feed hungry people in the developing world.
The good news is that nearly a decade of popular protest has prevented Terminator from coming to market. The threat of Terminator sparked massive opposition - from farmers, civil society, indigenous peoples, scientific bodies and some governments. In 1999, battered by bad publicity, even Monsanto, and then AstraZeneca (now Syngenta), publicly pledged not to commercialize Terminator seeds. In 2000, governments meeting at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recommended a moratorium on the field-testing and commercialization of Terminator. Although the biotech industry and a handful of governments lobbied aggressively to overturn the moratorium, the CBD unanimously re-affirmed and strengthened the moratorium on Terminator seeds in March 2006. In May 2006 the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches called on churches and ecumenical partners to take action to stop genetic seed sterilization.
The bad news is that Terminator seeds are making a comeback. Our new report reveals that public and private sector researchers are developing a new generation of suicide seeds using chemically induced 'switches' that turn a genetically modified (GM) plant's fertility on or off. New research on Terminator is ostensibly being conducted for the purpose of preventing contamination of conventional or organic crops with DNA from GM crops. There's no question that GM contamination through the spread of pollen and seeds is a huge concern - the problem is that the molecular technology being developed to address GM contamination operates on a seed sterility platform. What's more, the technology cannot promise fail-safe containment of leaky genes, but it will allow the multinational seed industry to tighten its grasp on proprietary germplasm, restrict the rights of farmers and dictate the conditions under which seeds and plants are viable.
Despite the fact that European consumers have overwhelmingly rejected GM foods, the European Union's 3-year Transcontainer Project is investing over 5 million euros of public money to promote molecular containment of genetically modified plants and trees so that GM crops and non-GM crops can, theoretically, 'coexist.'
GM contamination is the Achilles Heel of agricultural biotech. Gene flow from some genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to non-GMO plants and wild relatives has the potential to harm ecosystems or threaten the food supply. Neither industry nor government regulators have been able to contain or control GMOs. The stakes are higher today because commercial firms are conducting open-air field-tests of GM plants engineered to produce drugs or industrial chemicals in food and field crops. The economic costs of even one contamination incident can be staggering. For example, even seven years after the StarLink 'taco debacle' in 2000, the biotech and food industries are still testing for the presence of StarLink contamination. The total estimated cost for StarLink testing and product loss has exceeded $600 million.[ii] (StarLink refers to a GM maize variety sold by Aventis - now owned by Bayer - that entered the food supply although it had never been authorized for human consumption.)
Specifically, the Transcontainer Project is developing 'reversible transgenic sterility' - dubbed -zombie seeds- by ETC Group. These are sterile seeds that the farmer could bring 'back to life' by (buying) and applying a chemical. In other words, the seeds behave like classic Terminator seeds, except farmers would pay for the privilege of restoring seed fertility every year - a new form of perpetual monopoly for the seed industry.
Why would farmers ever choose to buy Terminator or Zombie sterile-seed technology? Because seed companies, with the aim of reducing competition and increasing market share, will do whatever they can to get farmers on the sterile-seed platform. Keep in mind that, after three decades of mergers and acquisitions, the commercial seed industry is controlled by a handful of multinational companies. Just four companies - Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta and Groupe Limagrain - control half of the world's proprietary seed market. Gene Giants will coerce farmers to choose sterile seed by ensuring that the latest technology (i.e., genetic traits) is available only on that platform, and, perhaps, by keeping prices low - initially. As a selling point, the companies will readily acknowledge the problem of GM contamination and the need to contain gene flow. Sterile seed platforms will be promoted (and in some cases required) as safer, more responsible seed technology. Once farmers are on the platform and the competition has been destroyed, companies will start pricing the seed (in the case of Terminator) or pricing the chemical that restores seed viability (in the case of Zombie) as high as they want. Zombie will also allow the Gene Giants to cut costs, because it will be cheaper for them to sell farmers a proprietary chemical for bringing seeds 'back to life' (rather than pay the seed-multiplication, warehousing and distribution costs required to sell new seed every planting season). Ironically, the Gene Giants will argue that availability of Terminator and Zombie sterile-seed platforms offers more 'choice' to farmers!
Biofuel Greenwashing: There's an insidious link between renewed enthusiasm for suicide seeds and the frenzied development of new biofuels. Many civil society organizations have pointed out that the rush to plant energy crops in the developing world will shift marginal land away from food production and adversely affect soil, water, biodiversity, land tenure and the livelihoods of peasant farmers and indigenous peoples. The now-allied energy and agribusiness industries will argue that genetic engineering of crops and trees is necessary to make biofuels economically viable and efficient - but they realize GM plants won't be acceptable if the threat of GM contamination persists. So, seed sterility platforms will be promoted as a solution for 'safer' biofuels. The irony is that society is being asked to foot the bill for a new techno-fix to mitigate the genetic contamination caused by the biotech industry's defective GM seeds.
If governments can be convinced that biological containment of GMOs is technically possible, it will open the floodgates to new markets for biotech plants: GM crops and trees for biofuels, commercial-scale production of GM pharmaceutical plants (plants engineered to produce drugs), and GM industrial crops (plants engineered to produce chemical compounds for industrial uses).
The Bottom Line: There is no such thing as a safe and acceptable form of Terminator. Public funds should not be used to support research on genetic seed sterilization. The European Commission should discontinue funding for 'reversible transgenic sterility.' Rather than support research on coexistence to bail out the agbiotech industry, the EU should instead fund sustainable agricultural research that benefits farmers and the public. National governments should pass legislation to prohibit field-testing and commercial sale of these technologies (India and Brazil have already passed laws and a new bill has just been introduced in Canada. Governments meeting at the CBD's Ninth meeting in 2008 must strengthen the United Nations moratorium on Terminator by recommending a ban on the technology.
ETC Group's new report, 'Terminator: The Sequel' examines the EU Transcontainer Project as well as new research on techniques to excise transgenes from GM plants at a specific time in the plant's development (Exorcist), and methods to kill a plant with 'conditionally lethal' genes (pull-the-plug genes)
[i] Bill Freiberg, 'Is Delta & Pine Land's Terminator Gene a Billion Dollar Discovery?' Seed and Crops Digest, March/April 1998.
[ii] According to Jeffrey Barach, Vice-President and Center Director, GMA/Food Products Association. Comments made during Agrifood Nanotechnology Workshop, Michigan State University, April 2, 2007.