By the year 2000 - after a 12,000-year history of farming - farmers may no longer be able to save seed or breed improved varieties. The problem is not the Millennium Bug but the Millennium Seed."
The twelve thousand year old practice of farm families saving their best seed from one year's harvest for planting the next season may be coming to an end. On March 3rd, an American cotton seed company and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced they had received a patent on a technique that genetically-disables a seed's capacity to germinate when planted again. US Patent No. 5,723,765, granted to Delta & Pine Land Co., doesn't just cover the firm's cotton and soybean seed business but potentially all cultivated crops.
Under a research agreement with the USDA, the company has the exclusive right to license (or not) the new technology to others. While only cotton and tobacco seeds have been shown to respond to the new technique, the company plans to have what RAFI's Research Director Hope Shand has dubbed, "Terminator Technology" ready for a much wider range of crops shortly after the year 2000.
According to USDA spokesman Willard Phelps, the primary targets for the Terminator are "Second and Third World" markets. Priority crops include rice, wheat, sorghum and soybeans - crops largely ignored by agribusiness breeders because they aren't readily hybridized (a tried-and-true biological means of forcing farmers back into the seed market every year). By and large, profit-hungry seed companies have shunned these crops because the returns don't match those for hybrid crops like maize and many vegetables. With the patent announcement, the world's two most critical food crops - rice and wheat, staple foods for three-quarters of the world's poor - potentially enter the realm of private monopoly.
The patent has taken plant breeders by storm. The technique - if it works as advertised - has profound implications for agriculture. But the news has also created division. Some of those contacted by RAFI see benefits to the new technology. "For the first time, private companies will be encouraged to invest in the world's most vital food crops. We can look forward to a new flow of investment into crops whose yields have stagnated or even declined in the Nineties. Now such poor people's crops as rice and wheat will get the research support they so desperately need," one crop economist advised. The patent's defenders acknowledge that the Terminator Technology will mean a hefty hike in seed costs as farmers who now only buy seed when they change varieties are forced to make annual purchases. But they defend hiking seed prices by saying farmers will only opt for the "sterile" seeds if they offer a big advantage. Otherwise, farmers will keep with the current publicly-bred varieties.
RAFI's Hope Shand disagrees. "Don't forget, the Terminator was developed by the public sector (USDA) together with the private sector. There will be enormous pressure on public breeders to adopt the technique in order to feed cash-starved government and university research department with corporate dollars." Edward Hammond of RAFI concurs, "Biotech companies that are already patenting specific crop genes and traits will probably insist that other breeders licensing their germplasm use the Terminator to protect their monopoly. It won't take long," Hammond adds, "before farmers run out of choices. Either they pay for the Millennium Seed or they replant older varieties from abandoned breeding programmes."
"This is a patent that really turns on the greed gene," says Camila Montecinos of the Chilean-based Center for Education and Technology, "It's too profitable for companies to ignore. We will see pressure on national regulatory systems to marginalize saved-seed varieties and clear the way for the Terminator. One point four billion farm families are at risk."
Aside from sky-rocketing seed costs, Neth DaÒo of the Philippines-based civil society organization SEARICE sees a threat to the environment and to long term food security. "We work with farmers who may buy a commercial variety but its breeder wouldn't recognize it five years later. Women select the best seeds every year and - over time - the rice molds itself to the farm's own ecosystem. Women also cross the commercial variety with other rice strains to breed their own locally-adapted seeds. The Terminator could put an end to all this and increase crop uniformity and vulnerability. It poses a threat to the culture of seed sharing and exchange that is led primarily by women farmers."
"Ultimately, the Terminator technology will severely limit farmer options, says Neth Dano of SEARICE. "Will we be left with rice varieties that taste like sawdust and which pests and diseases love to devour?" asks DaÒo.
Camila Montecinos of Chile-based CET is calling for a global boycott of the Terminator Technology. "Governments should make use of the technology illegal," she insists. "This is an immoral technique that robs farming communities of their age-old right to save seed and their role as plant breeders. It should be banned." To this, corporate breeders argue that the new technology simply does for hard-to-hybridize crops what the hybrid technique did for maize. Hybrid seed is either sterile or fails to reproduce the same quality characteristics in the next generation. Thus, most maize farmers buy seed every year. "Poor farmers can't afford hybrids either;" Montecinos points out, "but there's a key difference. The theory behind hybridization is that it allows breeders to make crosses that couldn't be made otherwise and that are supposed to give the plant higher yields and vigor. The results are often disappointing but that's the rationale. In the case of Terminator Technology, there's absolutely no agronomic benefit for farmers. The sole purpose is to facilitate monopoly control and the sole beneficiary is agribusiness."
RAFI will be working with its partners around the world to encourage a global ban on the use of Terminator Technology. "By the time it's ready for market shortly after the year 2000, we hope that the Millennium Seed will succumb to the Millennium Bug," concludes RAFI's Shand.