August 23, 1998

And Now... the Verminator!

Fat Cat Corp. with Fat Rat gene can Kill Crops

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.

Zeneca, the life industry spin-off of the old ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries), says it will apply for patents in 58 countries for its invention that renders it impossible for farmers to save "protected" seed from growing season to growing season (WO 94/03619). The technology, which activates a "killer" gene (or prevents the expression of genes crucial to normal plant development), weighs in whenever a chemical "trigger" is applied to seed at a desired point during plant maturation. For example, genetically engineered seed could be produced that would not germinate unless exposed to Zeneca's private chemical trigger. Or, plants growing in the field could be genetically programmed to become stunted, not properly reproduce, or not resist disease(s) unless sprayed with Zeneca's chemical formula.

In the patent description, Zeneca described the source of one such "killer" gene as coming from "mammalian uncoupling protein isolated from the brown adipose tissue of Ratus ratus" - or the "Fat Rat" gene. The move by the British firm is hard on the heels of the US patent (US 5,723,765) granted in March to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Delta and Pine Land Company for what RAFI dubbed "Terminator Technology". Within weeks of that patent announcement, the US agrochemical behemoth Monsanto bought Delta and Pine for US$1.76 billion. Then, in June, Monsanto and American Home Products, one of the biggest cats in the chemical jungle, announced that they would merge. The union instantly created the worldÌs largest pesticide firm, second largest seed enterprise, and a giant that ranks in the top ten in pharmaceuticals and veterinary medicines. Zeneca is currently the worldÌs fifth largest seed company with annual sales of US$437 million in 1997. It is also an important crop chemical and drug company.

"The Verminator is a broader and more pervasive variation on the MonsterÌs Terminator," says Pat Mooney, Executive Director of RAFI. "It looks like Zeneca can either choose to sell seeds that are already incapable of replanting - or trigger the "killer" by chemical spraying at a later date." RAFIÌs Edward Hammond adds, "Zeneca may also be in a position to attach its genetic 'bomb' to destroy specific genes or gene sequences within the plant. This could allow the seed to be regrown while still eradicating key genetic traits."


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