Monday, January 7, 2008

Terminator Technology

The Threat to World Food Security

Monsanto's latest flagship technology makes a nonsense of its claim that it seeks to feed the worlds hungry. On the contrary, it threatens to undermine the very basis of traditional agriculture - that of saving seeds from year to year. What's more, this “gene cocktail" will increase the risk that new toxins and allergens will make their way into the food chain.

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In 1860, fully five years before Abbé Gregor Mendel published his obscure tome on the genetics of peas, launching so-called "modern" plant breeding, a certain Major Hallett, F.L.S., of Brighton was warning farmers and fellow seedsmen that any abuse of his "pedi-gree" trademark for cereals would be "severely dealt with".(1) But his seeds were not patentable and there was little he could do to keep farmers from buying his wheat varieties, sowing them, selecting the best seed for the next season, and breeding their own varieties uniquely adapted to local soils, slopes, and weather.

It was only in 1908 that George Shull came up with what Major Hallett really wanted - a biological weapon to keep farmers from saving and developing their own seeds. Called "hybridization", a wonderfully euphemistic term that led farmers to think that crossing two distant plant relatives could create a "hybrid vigour" that so improved yield as to make the resulting seed sterility - meaning it could not be replanted - financially worthwhile.(2) Today, almost every ear of corn grown from California to Kazakhstan is a hybrid controlled by any one of a handful of very large seed companies.

Exactly 90 years after Shull's revelation, one of the biggest and most powerful of those companies, Monsanto, is fighting for control of the most important seed monopoly technology since the hybrid. But unlike 1860, this piece of life control can be patented. On March 3rd, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a little-known cotton-seed enterprise called Delta and Pine Land Company, acquired US patent 5,723,765 - or the Technology Protection System (TPS). Within days, the rest of the world knew TPS as Terminator Technology. Its declared goal is to promulgate plants that will produce self-terminating off-spring - suicide seeds. Terminator Technology epitomizes what the genetic engineering of crops is all about and gives an insight into the driving forces behind the corporate campaign to control and own life.

The Terminator rides to the rescue of long-suffering multi-nationals who have been unable to hold farmers back from their 12,000 year tradition of saving and breeding seeds. Farmers buy the seed once do their own work thereafter. Patents and Pinkerton detectives have been employed to stop farmers from doing so. The Terminator though provides a built-in biological "patent", enforced by egineered genes. Small farming communities of the Third World especially, rely upon their
own plant breeding since neither corporate nor public breeders show much interest or aptitude in breeding for their often ficult environments. Old-fashioned hybrids and the Terminator Technology with its terminated seeds force farmers back to the market every season. Terminator also scuttles community conservation of agricultural biodiversity. There's nothing to conserve. It is the "neutron bomb" of agriculture.

Hybrid seeds

Following the rediscovery of Mendel's Laws in 1900, money-minded plant breeders pursued strategies that would force farmers back to the marketplace every season to spend their hard-earned money on seeds. Although the concept of hybrids evolved with George Shull in 1908, the first hybrid maize was not commercialized until 1924 by Henry A. Wallace. Two years later, Wallace formed Pioneer Hi-Bred the world's largest seed company and still largely controlled by the founding family. Wallace went on to become US Secretary of Agriculture and, finally (in 1941), Vice-President of the United States. Wallace's championship of hybrids made it an immutable, if unscientific, Act of Faith to argue that "hybrid
vigour" made maize the "bin-busting" bonanza it is today. More recently, however, respected scientific and economic critics like Jean-Pierre Berlan of France's INRA and Richard C. Lewontin of Harvard, as well as Jack R Kloppenburg Jr. of
the University of Wisconsin, have challenged this assumption insisting that conventional maize-breeding programmes would always out-perform hybrids given the same research invest-ment. According to these critics, the only advantage to hybrids lies in their profitability for companies.

How hybrids work

Hybrid seeds are the first generation (Fl) progeny of two distinct and distant parental lines of the same species. The seed will incorporate and express the desired genetic traits of each parent for just one generation. Seeds taken from an Fl hybrid may either be sterile or, more commonly, fail to "breed true", not express the desirable genetic qualities found in Fl. Farmers in industrialized agricultural systems rarely attempt to replant a hybrid because of the exacting requirements of machine-harvesting and food-processing for crop uniformity. Resource-poor farmers in countries such as Brazil, on the other hand, will often take F2 (second generation) hybrid seeds as a source of breeding material to be blended with their traditional varieties. In this way, skilled local breeders, mostly women, be they in Brazil, Burundi or Bangladesh, isolate useful genetic characteristics and adapt them to their immediate market. The most commonly hybridized crops are maize, cotton, sunflowers and sorghum.

Until recently, small grain cereals such as rice, wheat, barley, oats, and rye and leguminous crops such as soybeans, have defied such commercial hybridization. Now this is changing. Public breeding initiatives led by governments such as China and institutions such as the Rockefeller Foundation and Cornell University have developed commercial rice hybrids. The seed multinationals are hot on their heels. Most recently, giants like Monsanto and Novartis have been waxing poetic over the prospect of Fl hybrid wheat. With more land sown to wheat than any other crop on the planet, a new hybrid monopoly for this crop would be a windfall for seed companies. (3)

Terminator Technology: The Terminator as Biological Warfare on Farmers and Food Security

The Terminator does more than ensure that farmers can't successfully replant their harvested seed. It is the "platform" upon which companies can load their proprietary genetic traits - patented genes for herbicide-tolerance or insect-resistance - and get the farmers hooked on their seeds and caught in the chemical treadmill. The Terminator is a guarantee that even Brazil's innovative farmers will have to buy access to these traits every year.

The target market for the Terminator is explicitly the South's farmers. Beginning with company news releases announcing the patent, Delta and Pine has trumpeted that its Technology Protection System will make it economically safe for seed companies to sell their high-tech varieties in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The company has even estimated that 405 million hectares will be sown with Terminator seeds within a few years. This is a land mass almost equal to South Asia. Although Terminator Technology has only been tested in cotton and tobacco, its designers are convinced that it can be applied to any species. Delta and Pine has specifically suggested that rice and wheat farmers in countries like India, China and Pakistan are a priority market. According to the company, Terminator Technology's value could run as high as $4.00 per hectare for upmarket garden crops. The patent could be worth a billion dollars.(4)

"The centuries old practice of farmer-saved seed is really a gross disadvantage to Third World farmers who inadvertently become locked into obsolete varieties because of their taking the "easy road" and not planting newer, more productive varieties." - Dr Harry B. Collins, Delta and Pine Land Co, VicePresident for Technology Transfer (June 12, 1998) (5)

How the Terminator Technology works

The Terminator Technology is the main application of a broadly framed patent for the "control of plant gene expression". The Terminator is basically a genetically engineered suicide mechanism that can be triggered off by a specific outside stimulus. As a result the seeds of the next generation will self-destruct by self-poisoning. The preferred trigger is the antibiotic tetracycline applied to seeds. The main version of the Terminator consists of a set of three novel genes inserted into one plant [see Box I ]; another version divides two or three genes on to two plants, which are later to be cross-pollinated. The end-result is always a dead seed in the following generation.

Terminator Technology is the Trojan Horse for the spread of genetically-engineered crops in the South. In the absence of "effective" patent regimes, companies can still market their wares and enforce constant returns for their investments. In the absence of adequate biosafety legislation, countries might be persuaded to accept the Terminator on the assumption that the technology is safe and that transgenic traits cannot survive to a second generation. even by cross-pollination. This assumption is ill-founded. As with all genetic engineering, its direct effect and its side-effects are unpredictable and carry all the risks inherent in this technology. The gene-cocktail of the Terminator increases the risks that new toxins and allergens will show up in our food and animal fodder.

Most alarming though is the possibility that the Terminator genes themselves could infect the agricultural gene pool of the neighbour's crops and of wild and weedy relatives, placing a time-bomb. Temporary "gene silencing" of the poison gene or failed activation of the Terminator countdown enables such infection [see Box 2].

Between 15 and 20 per cent of the world's food supply is grown by poor farmers who save their seed. These farmers feed at least 1.4 billion people. The Terminator "protects" companies by risking the lives of these people. Since Terminator Technology has absolutely zero agronomic benefit, there is no reason to jeopardize the food security of the poor by gambling with genetic engineering in the field. Whether the Terminator works immediately or later, in either instance it is biological warfare on farmers and food security.

The Terminator also portends a hidden dark side. As a Trojan Horse for other transgenic traits, the technology might also be used to switch any trait off or on. At least in theory, the technology points to the possibility that crop diseases could be triggered by seed exports that would not have to "kick in" immediately - or not until activated by specific chemicals or conditions. This form of biological warfare on people's food and economies is becoming a hot topic in military and security circles.(6)

Terminator meets the "Monster"

Scarcely two months after USDA and Delta & Pine Land announced the receipt of the Terminator patent, Monsanto bought the company. The announcement of the $1.76 billion purchase came on May 11th even as parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity were meeting in Bratislava. The Terminator had already elbowed its way into conference debates when press stories reached delegations. Overnight the US delegation, who had not uttered a word when even the USDA was under attack for its Terminator involvement, came out fighting for Monsanto. With former Clinton White House staffers on Monsanto's lobby payroll and Mickey Cantor, the US Trade Representative for much of the Uruguay Round, on Monsanto's board, the American government's zeal was less than surprising.[See Ferrara in this issue]

Seed technology has moved a long way since 1860 and the proprietary passions of Major Hallett. Short months before the Major trade-marked his pedigreed seed, the keynote speaker to the Wisconsin agricultural fair warned the farmers and scientists to beware of new technologies that distance farmers from their crops. Although his immediate concern was the steam engine's use in agriculture - he wasn't against it, just worried about whose interests it was serving - the speaker opined that the task of agricultural technology is to provide a decent living for farmers and to feed people. Clinton's administration might do well to heed Abraham Lincoln's advice before allowing the Terminator to enslave the world's farmers today.' (7)

Terminating the Terminator

People's organizations and governments can halt the Terminator. Legal means are available through International Law and existing intergovernmental convention to outlaw the technology. Here are a few possibilities.

1. The USDA/Delta patent is pending around the world. The patent can and should be rejected on the grounds that it is in conflict with public morality. The Terminator is a threat to food security and destructive of agricultural biodiversity. On these grounds, governments are fully entitled under the terms of even the quarrelsome TRIPS chapter of the WTO (World Trade Organization) agreement to refuse the patent. In doing so, governments are also (according to the WTO) agreeing not to allow the technology to be exploited by others within their territory.

2. Pressure (within and without the United States) should be put on the USDA to refuse to surrender the patent to the company. In fact, the USDA (which surprised itself with the March 3rd patent announcement) should also petition the US Patent and Trademark Office to revisit the claims and determine whether or not it is indeed in conflict with public morality.

3. The 100+ member states to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological and Toxic Weapons, and on Their Destruction (1972) should call for the abolition of Terminator Technology as a form of economic biological warfare that not only makes war on farming communities but could be manipulated to threaten national food security and destroy the national agricultural economy.

4. At its October 1998 meeting the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the world's largest international public plant breeding network) should announce its opposition to the Terminator and its refusal to use it itself.

5. At its May 1999 meeting, the Convention on Biological Diversity's Subsidiary Body on Science and Technology should pass a resolution declaring the Terminator a threat to agricultural biodiversity and calling for its removal. Such an initiative would strengthen national efforts to ban the patent and the technology under the terms of the World Trade Agreement.

Dr. Ricarda A. Steinbrecher is a geneticist and biologist. She is coordinating the Test Tube Harvest Campaign of the Women's Environmental Network, is Science Director of the Genetics Forum, UK and is biolechnology advisor to many non-governmental organisations.

Pat Roy Mooney has worked for more than 30 years with civil society organisations on international trade and development issues related to agnculture and biodiversity and is the author of several books on the subject. He lives in Winnipeg, Canada, where he is Executive Director of RAFI.

References and Notes

1. Berlan, Jean-Pierre and Richard C.Lewontin, "Agricultural Genetics and Sterifix Breeding" (1998) unpublished manuscript from an advertisment inserted at pages 5 -6.

2. Lewontin, Richard C., and Berlan, Jean-Pierre,"The Political Economy of Agricultural Research. The Case of Hybrid Corn" Chapter 23, p. 625 in Carroll, Ronaid, C., Vandermeer, John H., and Rossett, Peter, Agroecology, McGraw-Hill Publishing Co.

3. For further information about the new push for cereal hybrids, please see RAFI Communiqué "Seed Industry Consolidation - 1988: Who Owns Whom?" (July/August, 1988) at the RAH website

4. Freiburg, Bill, "Is Delta and Pine Land's Terminator Gene a Billion Dollar
Discover?" in Seeds and Crop Digest, May-June, 1998.

5. Collins, Harry B. "New Technologies and Modemizing World Agriculture", an unpublished paper distributed by Dr. Collins during a debate on Terminator held June 12th, 1998 during the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Rome).

6. Via a Freedom of Information application to the US Army, RAFI recently received documentation from a military seminar titled, "Biotechnology Workshop 20/20" (May 29-30, 1996, held at the Army War College. The papers outline a wide range of military uses for biotechnology which the authors believe to be feasible by the year 2020.

7. Abraham Lincoln, "Annual Address by Hon. Abram Lincoln of Illinois delivered at Milwaukee, Sept. 30, 1859" pages 287-299 in Transactions of the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Carpenter and Hyer, (Madison) 1860.

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