January 14, 1999

Monsanto Terminates Terminator?

... or is the "Monster" just taking its own sterility strategy underground? Get Ready for Terminator II - the "TNT" of agriculture

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 news came, appropriately enough, amid the 50th anniversary celebrations for the UN's Universal Declaration on Human Rights. "If Monsanto is backing down on Terminator," says Rene Salazar of the Philippines, "it is a great day for Farmers' Rights and the right of farmers to save and exchange seeds." Salazar chairs the Community Biodiversity Development and Conservation Programme (CBDC) a 15-country consortium of rural organizations concerned devoted to farmer-based plant breeding.

Terminator II: Pat Mooney, RAFI's Executive Director, says that RAFI also heard from an informed US Department of Agriculture (USDA) official that the company might have an alternative strategy in the works. Monsanto may choose to avoid negative publicity by giving up its high-profile association with the Terminator patent, and instead conduct in-house research on a second-generation variation of the suicide seed. "Unfortunately, this isn't goodbye to Terminator, it's probably hasta la vista ," explains Mooney, "It's likely that Monsanto's research on genetic seed sterilization will move under-ground where it can be conducted away from public scrutiny and negative publicity." Mooney adds, "After all, this is a technology that is still in the early stages of development, why invite more negative publicity when its still some years away from commercialization?"

Trick or Treat?: "In recent weeks, Monsanto has come under increasing fire, especially from India's farmers, to abandon the Terminator patent," RAFI's Research Director, Hope Shand reports. "Lately," Shand says, "Monsanto has been trying to disassociate itself with the highly unpopular Terminator technology." On 3 December Shand told a United Nations biotechnology conference in Vienna that Terminator Technology poses an enormous threat to world food security and to Farmers' Rights. When Monsanto's spokesperson, Carlos Joly, followed her to the podium, he didn't say a word to defend the technology. "Participants were very surprised," Shand comments. "Monsanto's silence adds fuel to the rumours that the company sees Terminator technology as a public relations disaster and it wants to get out of the crosshairs."

The Terminator technology was developed jointly by the USDA and Delta and Pine Land Company, a Mississippi-based seed company. Two months after the patent was awarded to both parties, Monsanto offered to buy Delta and Pine Land for $1.8 billion. In late-September RAFI learned that the Monsanto subsidiary had entered into negotiations with USDA to obtain exclusive rights to the Terminator patent. In response, RAFI launched an international e-mail campaign that has resulted in more than 3500 letters of protest from 60 countries to US Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman. The campaign calls on USDA to cease negotiations with Monsanto, abandon research on Terminator and withdraw patent applications on the technology that are pending in 87 foreign countries."

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