Beyond the prognostications of even its most pessimistic critics, Terminator science is snowballing into the corporate profit centre of the next decade and beyond. And, if the major seed and agrochemical multinationals have their way, Terminator and Traitor (negative trait) technologies will come on the heels of the new millennium to a farm near you. RAFI's Executive Director Pat Mooney declares, With this report and our previous work on the Terminator, RAFI is sounding the alarm that without government action, these technologies will be commercialized within a few years with potentially disastrous consequences."
Says RAFI Programme Officer Edward Hammond, "Since we discovered the original Terminator patent a year ago, even at our most pessimistic we never forecast negative trait genetic engineering to explode as quickly as it has." Most observers thought there would be a delay of two or three years before second and third generation Terminator refinements were patented; but instead says Hammond, "a survey of patent offices reveals that the cat is completely out of the bag. In fact, the original Terminator may be a dead letter because enhanced Terminator seeds are already in the laboratory."
RAFI reports that every Gene Giant multinational has patented, or admits it is working on genetically-sterilized or chemically-dependent seeds. RAFI's report provides details and analysis on over two dozen such patents recently obtained by 12 institutions. The patents seek to exploit - or could exploit - new genetic engineering techniques that use inducible promoters to disable critical plant functions governing reproduction, disease resistance, and seed viability.
If commercialization of such seeds proceeds, farmers worldwide will be tangled in an expensive web of chemicals, intellectual property, and disabled germplasm that leads to bioserfdom. The technology spells disaster for farmers and global food security because over three quarters of the world's farmers - mainly poor farmers - depend on farm saved seed. The complete removal of farmers from the age-old process of plant breeding through sterilized seed could also signify a disastrous narrowing of the genepool on which everyone depends for food security.
SCARY SCOPE: According to RAFI's Research Director Hope Shand, "The patents describe the use of external chemicals to turn on and off genetic traits in plants and go well beyond DeltaPine's original 'Terminator' patent. They are techniques to control a wide variety of 'input' and 'output' (production and processing) traits by spraying with proprietary herbicides or fertilizers. Others take us beyond crop plants to the use of Terminator-style tactics on insects and even possibly mammals."
KILLER GENES, JUNKIE SEEDS, AND MODERN-DAY "MIRACLES": Some patents aim to switch the plant's germination on or off. AstraZeneca's Verminator patents use what it calls 'killer genes' for this purpose. Yet AstraZeneca has been telling governments, scientists, and the press that despite their continuing pursuit of its patents around the world, they won't stop farmers from saving seed. RAFI's Pat Mooney says, "Something didn't add up, so we set out to investigate."
Newly discovered patent claims explain the confusing AstraZeneca position. The new patents refine AstraZeneca's "Verminator" technology that links plant growth and germination to repeated application of proprietary chemicals. Without specific patented chemicals, the plant doesn't grow. "Essentially," says RAFI's Edward Hammond, "they're talking about the manufacture of junkie plants that are physically dependent on a patented chemical cocktail." AstraZeneca says it will patent the technology in 77 countries.
Says RAFI's Mooney, "So, you see AstraZeneca and the other Gene Giants don't want farmers to buy new seed every year so much as to force them to repurchase their old seed." Monsanto is already pioneering such 'pay by the generation' techniques through legal means - the infamous grower agreements - in the US and Canada; but research is steering toward biological means of achieving the same sad end. Mooney says "It will be vastly more profitable for multinationals to sell seeds programmed to commit suicide at harvest so that farmers must pay the company to obtain the chemicals to have them re-activated for the next planting &endash; either through a seed conditioning process or through the purchase of a specialized chemicals that bring saved seed back to life, Lazarus-style."
"In effect, this shifts all the seed costs to farmers, and the companies won't have to multiply, ship, and warehouse massive seed stocks," Hammond adds, "As the seed oligopoly strengthens, companies will have less and less incentive to invest in plant breeding research, after all they'll already have the farmers in a position of utter dependency." Pat Mooney agrees, "With these 'Lazarus-link seeds' the advertising investment will continue but the research investment will wither away."
GENETIC MUTILATION: An especially disturbing feature of some of the new patents profiled in RAFI's report is the deliberate disabling of natural plant functions that help to fight disease. Swiss biotech giant Novartis is most advanced in this aspect of Traitor technology. Novartis blandly refers to it as "inactivation of endogenous regulation" so that "genes which are natively regulated can be regulated exclusively by the application to the plant of a chemical regulator."
Among the genes which Novartis can control in this manner are patented SAR (systemic acquired resistance) genes which are critical to plant's ability to fight off infections from many viruses and bacteria. Thus, Novartis has patented techniques to create plants with natural healthy functions turned off. "The only way to turn them back on and fix these 'damaged goods' " says RAFI's Edward Hammond, "is, well, you guessed it, the application of a propietary chemical."
IGHT-LIPPED MONSANTO: Caught like a deer in the headlights during recent battles over genetically-modified plants - especially in Europe - Monsanto has sought to deflect questions and criticism about Terminator technology by saying that the Terminator belongs to its soon-to-be subsidiary Delta and Pine Land Company. As such, the oft-repeated PR position goes, Monsanto doesn't yet have access to the Terminator and can't inform concerned governments and people about plans for Terminator seed.
"It's been their mantra across the world." says RAFI's Mooney, "We've heard the same confusing statements from Monsanto representatives in New Zealand, India, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Brazil, the EU, and the US." Even last week, at a Harvard University presentation, Monsanto's representative similarly shrugged off the question. "In fact," says RAFI's Mooney, "it's a deliberate ploy - or, at best, incomplete information - that obfuscates facts about the company's own research agenda. Monsanto already has its own in-house, patented Terminator technology, which it says it will patent in a whopping 89 countries. Obviously, the company is not being forthright. If Monsanto doesn't start coming clean, it risks further damage to its already tarnished image."
WILL TERMINATOR WORK? RAFI notes that some plant scientists are skeptical that Traitor Technology will work successfully in the field. Monsanto, one of the original Traitor Tech proponents, is encouraging this view. There is no doubt that Traitor Tech will be continually refined as it moves toward the market; but terminator plants are already in the greenhouse and profit estimates are being calculated. "It's only a matter of time. Every major pesticide-producing Gene Giant is hard at work perfecting the technology." Shand adds, "Companies don't patent for the fun of the paperwork and paying lawyer's fees. Those who think corporations will drop the Terminator &endash; or think it won't make it to market - are living in Fantasyland. There's too much money to be made. Unless it is banned by governments, Terminator is going to happen, and probably sooner rather than later."
WILL FARMERS BUY IT? Delta & Pine Land and Monsanto insist that no one will force farmers to buy Terminator seed. The real question is, will farmers have a choice? The commercial seed industry is imploding, and a handful of Gene Giants already control a rapidly expanding share of major seed markets. After DuPont announced earlier this month that it would buy Pioneer Hi-Bred, the world's largest seed company, the Wall Street Journal concluded that the deal "effectively divides" most of the US seed industry between DuPont and Monsanto. With the disappearance of public sector plant breeders, farmers are becoming increasingly vulnerable and have fewer choices in the marketplace.
TERMINATING THE TERMINATOR: RAFI and its partners around the world are contacting governments asking them to declare all of the Terminator-style patent claims as contrary to ordre public. In January, Global Response (a US based non-profit organization) encouraged its 4,000 members in forty countries to write to the Director-General of FAO asking him to oppose the Terminator as a matter of world food security. FAO has replied that governments may take up the issue in Rome April 19 to 23 during the meeting of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. RAFI will be at that meeting and will make a presentation to governments. Further, concerned individuals from 71 countries have sent almost 7,000 letters to US Agriculture Secretary Glickman asking him to ban the Terminator.
Although global opposition is mounting, RAFI worries that the UN's Biodiversity Convention may go "soft" on the environmental and social implications of the technology. When the Convention meets in Montreal in June, it is to receive a scientific study on Terminator. "We will read and respond to that study very quickly," Pat Mooney advises."