The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a Canadian-based rural advocacy organization, announced today that it has uncovered over three dozen new patents describing a wide range of techniques that can be used for the genetic sterilization of plants and seeds. The patents reveal that engineered seed sterility is not an isolated research agenda - it's the Holy Grail of the ag biotech industry," says Pat Mooney of RAFI. The disclosure follows on the heels of a controversial patent unveiled last year, christened the "Terminator" by RAFI, that continues to generate worldwide protest and debate because it renders farm-saved seed sterile - forcing farmers to return to the commercial seed market every year. The Terminator patent is jointly owned by the US Department of Agriculture and a Monsanto subsidiary, Delta & Pine Land Co.
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Rural advocacy organizations learned that Monsanto, arguably the world's least popular biotech multinational, held a high-level meeting yesterday to consider whether or not to abandon its quest for an exclusive license on the Terminator technology , US patent no. 5,723,765 , which its subsidiary, Delta & Pine Land Co., co-owns with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).* The patent covers a system for genetically engineering suicide seeds" that cannot be replanted, thus forcing farmers to return to the commercial seed market every year. Philip Angell, Director of Monsanto's Corporate Communications, confirmed that Monsanto held a meeting to discuss Terminator yesterday and that Monsanto's President, Bob Shapiro, attended. Angell declined to offer details, but he told RAFI that "it's an issue we have to wrestle with."
The plot thickens as Monsanto's biotech PR blitz has led to increasing problems for the corporation, including the scrapped merger between Monsanto and American Home Products.
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 strong and unambiguous policy was adopted by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) at a meeting at the World Bank in Washington on Friday, October 30th.
It's a courageous decision. The CGIAR has done the right thing, for the right reasons," says Pat Mooney, Executive Director of RAFI, "a ban on Terminator is a pro-farmer policy in defence of world food security."
The CGIAR is a global network of 16 international agricultural research centres, which collectively form the world's largest public plant breeding effort for resource-poor farmers. The Terminator genetic engineering technique renders farm-saved seed sterile, forcing farmers to return to the commercial seed market every year. The technology is aimed primarily at seed markets in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where over 1.4 billion people depend on farm-saved seed and on-farm plant breeding. If widely adopted, the Terminator would make it impossible for farmers to save seed and breed their own crops.
With more than 70% of the Third World's rice and wheat crops based upon its crop breeding programmes, the world's largest network of agricultural research institutes is vowing not to useTerminator Technology (a biotech-based strategy that prevents seed from regerminating in a secondgrowing season). The decision is a slap-in-the-face to one of its major funders - the US Government, and to Monsanto Corporation - who claim their technology will help feed the hungry.
Seed industry rankings have a shorter shelf life than tomatoes. As RAFI predicted, the frenetic pace of seed industry mergers has made our list of major seed companies and their subsidiaries out of date in a matter of weeks (see the July/August RAFI Communique, Seed Industry Consolidation).
Monsanto appears apoplectic in the face of global criticism over the seed-killing Terminator technology. In recent weeks the company has taken a drubbing across the globe, from India to New Zealand, Zimbabwe, the UK, and even in cyberspace. But so far Monsanto's legendary spinmasters have been unable to counter the criticism and articulate any good reason why the world needs the Terminator. Who, after all, wants a dead seed?
Europe's answer to the American Home Monster" Terminator Technology is the Verminator, a new chemically activated seed killer. The Verminator kills seeds - in one of the invention's claims - by switching on rodent fat genes that have been bioengineered into crops. Zeneca BioSciences (UK) is vying with the "Monster" (Monsanto) to become Top Cat in the global seed industry even if it means playing cat and mouse with farmers and destroying their age-old practice of saving and breeding crop varieties.
Grameen Rejects Mean The American Home "Monster" is held at bay in Bangladesh - but who is going to monitor the micro-creditors? Since when is "empowerment through indebtedness" a solution for poor farming communities?
On 27 July 1998 Muhammad Yunus, managing director of the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh was reported by the BBC to have cancelled the Bank's planned relationship with Monsanto Corporation (often referred to as the American Home Monster" following its announced merger with American Home Products earlier this year). The abandoned arrangement would have given the micro-credit bank U.S.$250,000 to provide loans to poor farmers to buy Monsanto's agro-chemical and biotechnology products. Grameen's capitulation follows a month of intense international pressure that began June 25th when Yunus announced the Monsanto grant together with the Corporation's CSO, Robert Shapiro.
The first half of 1998 witnessed a dramatic consolidation of power over plant genetics worldwide. The global seed trade is dominated by life industry giants whose vast economic power over plant germplasm has effectively marginalized the role of public sector plant breeding and research.
The $33 billion merger between AHP and Monsanto will force the life industry into a race to see who will come out on top. The merger creates a new challenge for anti-trust and anti-monopoly law enforcement in the areas of pharmaceuticals, crop chemicals, plant breeding, human genomics, and livestock.
As a result of solid NGO pressure, the ominous Terminator Technology" became a topic of substantive discussion and debate at the recent meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP IV) in Bratislava, Slovakia, 4-15 May.
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."
Advocates for the newly patented terminator technology" developed jointly by the US Department of Agriculture and Mississippi-based Delta and Pine Land seed company claim that it will not only be an incentive to plant breeding investment but also a boon to food production in the South. This is "nonsense" according to RAFI Research Director, Hope Shand.
After a week of silence on the subject, the USA (a country that is not a Party to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity) is lobbying hard to re-write the Friends of the Chair' report on the Terminator - a technology widely condemned by numerous CBD members. Why the sudden spurt of behind the scenes activity? On May 11th, the giant Monsanto Corporation - a company with close White House connections and major multinational muscle - bought control of the Terminator patent. For Governments fighting to protect agricultural biodiversity in the Convention, its now or never.
Monsanto, the world's second largest pesticides corporation, has vaulted from nowhere to become the world's fourth largest seed company. Between mid-1996 and the end of 1997, Monsanto spent roughly US $2 billion in seed-related acquisitions. Its May 11th announcement that the corporation will take over Dekalb and Delta and Pine Land seed companies adds a staggering US $4.3 billion to its merger bill. By way of comparison, if Monsanto's Monday splurge were spent on public sector research, it would fully fund the entire CGIAR system at 1998 levels for over 12 years. But it is not who Monsanto is buying - but what patents it is acquiring - that has observers alarmed. Monsanto now has the Terminator - and maybe much more.
Delta and Pine Land Co. (Mississippi, USA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that they received US Patent No. 5,723,765 on a new genetic technology designed to prevent unauthorized seed saving by farmers. The patented technology, Control of plant gene expression" would allow seed companies to control the viability of progeny seed without harming the crop. In other words, the new technology genetically alters the seed so that it will not germinate if re-planted a second time.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) are moving quickly, and in concert to address abuses of their trust agreements covering several hundred thousand invaluable crop seed accessions, according to the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI).
The Life Industry 1997: The Global Enterprises that Dominate Commercial Agric., Food, and Health in 1997 - an overview
In 1997, for the first time in history, global mergers and acquisitions topped 1 trillion dollars - almost 10 times the value of all takeovers at the outset of this decade. UNCTAD revealed that 79% of all foreign direct investment to the South is now in the form of corporate acquisitions and a parallel US government report advises that 40-45% of all manufacturing sales are between subsidiary and parent multinationals. 1 The multilateral agreement on investment (MAI) currently being negotiated by industrialized countries behind closed doors, if adopted, could be the final blow to national sovereignty and signal the de facto ascendancy of transnational enterprises to the political control of the world's economy. During 1997, the life industry was also active in consolidating its power over the world's biological resources...
*The world's top 10 agrochemical corporations accounted for 82% of the global agrochemical sales in 1996. Sales reached US $30.5 billion last year, up more than 15% since 1994.
*The top 10 seed corporations control approximately 40% of the commercial seed market, valued at approximately (US) $15 billion.
*The world pharmaceutical market is an estimated $251 billion; the top 10 enterprises control approximately 36% of the global market. The top 20 drug companies control 57%.
*By the end of 1997, the top 10 veterinary medicine corporations are expected to hold 63% of the total worldwide market.
According to an article in the October 24th edition of Science magazine, In a new gold rush, genetics researchers are scouring odd corners of the world for families whose DNA is likely to carry interesting genes. They won't be freely sharing what they find, because their backing comes from companies like Sequana Therapeutics Inc. of La Jolla, California; Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Genset S.A. of Paris."
The reason why they won't share: The companies are looking to patent and profit from the DNA of remote populations. Just over a week after the Science report, on November 3, Arris Pharmaceuticals of California announced it would pay US $166 million in stock to take over Sequana, one of the highest profile human DNA prospecting companies. The merged company resulting from the Arris takeover will be called Axys Pharmaceuticals.1