Terminator Seeds Threaten an End to Farming
by Hope Shand and Pat Mooney
Earth Island Journal, Fall, 1998
The 12,000-year-old practice in which farm families save their
best seed from one year's harvest for the next season's planting
may be coming to an end by the year 2000. In March 1998, Delta
~ Pine Land Co. arid the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced
they had received a US patent on a new genetic technology designed
to prevent unauthorized seed-saving by farmers.
The patented technology enables a seed company to genetically
alter seed so that the plants that grow from it are sterile; farmers
cannot use their seeds. The patent is broad applying to plants
and seeds of all species including both transgenic (genetically
engineered) and conventionally-bred seeds. The developers of the
new technology say that their technique to prevent seed-saving
is still in the product development stage, and is now being tested
on cotton and tobacco. They hope to have a product on the market
sometime after the year 2000.
Over the last four years, USDA researchers claim to have spent
nearly $190,000 to support research on what the Rural Advancement
Foundation International (RAFI) calls "Terminator" seed
technology. Delta & Pine Land, the seed industry collaborator,
devoted $275,000 of in-house expenses and contributed an additional
$255,000 to the joint research. According to a USDA spokesperson,
Delta & Pine Land Co. has the option to exclusively license
the jointly developed patented technology.
The USDA's Willard Phelps explained that the goal is "to
increase the value of proprietary seed owned by US seed companies
and to open up new markets in second and third world countries."
USDA molecular biologist Melvin J. Oliver, the primary inventor
of the technology, explained why the US developed a technology
that prohibits farmers from saving seeds: "Our mission is
to protect US agriculture and to make us competitive in the face
of foreign competition. Without this, there is no way of protecting
the patented seed technology."
USDA stands to earn royalties of about 5 percent of the net
sales if a product is commercialized. The day after the. patent
was announced, Delta & Pine Land Company's stock rose sharply.
While USDA and seed industry profits may increase, these earnings
come at enormous cost to farmers and to global food security.
USDA researchers interviewed by the authors expressed a strong
allegiance to the commercial seed industry and an appalling lack
of awareness about this technology's potential effects, especially
in the US South.
Impact In the South
Delta &r Pine Land Co.'s press release claims that its
new technology has " the prospect of opening significant
worldwide seed markets to the sale of transgenic technology for
crops in which seed currently is saved and used in subsequent
Up to 1.4 billion resource-poor farmers in the South depend
on farm-saved seed and
seeds exchanged with neighbors as their primary seed source.
A technology that restricts farmer expertise in selecting seed
and developing locally-adapted strains is a threat to food security
and agricultural biodiversity, especially for the poor. The threat
is real, especially considering that USDA and Delta &r Pine
Land have applied for patent protection in countries from Brazil
If the Terminator technology is widely licensed, it could
mean that the commercial seed industry will enter entirely new
sectors of the seed market - especially in self-pollinating seeds
such as wheat, rice, cotton, soybeans, oats and sorghum. Historically,
there has been little commercial interest in non-hybridized seeds
such as wheat and rice because there was no way for seed companies
to control reproduction. With the patent announcement, the world's
two most critical food crops - rice and wheat, staple crops for
three-quarters of the world's poor - potentially enter the realm
of private monopoly.
In May, Monsanto announced it would acquire Delta &r Pine
Land Company for $1.8 billion. This means that seed-sterilizing
technology is now in the hands of the world's third-largest seed
corporation and second largest agrochemical corporation.
Monsanto's 1996 revenues were $9.26 billion. The company's
genetically engineered crops are expected to be used on approximately
50 million acres worldwide in 1998.
If Monsanto's new technology provides a genetic mechanism
to prevent farmers from germinating a second generation of seed,
then seed companies will gain the biological control over seeds
that they have heretofore lacked in non-hybrid crops.
Nobody knows exactly how many farmers in industrialized countries
save seed from their harvest each year. By some estimates, 20
to 30 percent of all soybean fields in the US midwest are planted
with farmer-saved seed. Most North American wheat farmers rely
on farm-saved seeds and return to the commercial market once every
four or five years. Almost all of the wheat grown on the Canadian
prairies is from seed produced in the communities in which it
is grown. The same is true for lentils and peas.
More Options for Farmers?
Proponents of the Terminator technology are quick to point
out that farmers will not buy seed that does not bring them benefits.
But market choices must be examined in the context of privatization
of plant breeding and rapid consolidation in the global seed industry.
The top ten seed corporations control approximately 40 percent
of the commercial seed market. Current trends in seed industry
consolidation, coupled with rapid declines in public sector breeding,
mean that farmers are increasingly vulnerable and have far fewer
options in the marketplace.
A new technology that is designed to give the seed industry
greater control over seeds will ultimately weaken the role. of
public breeders and reinforce corporate consolidation in the global
Advocates of Terminator technology claim that it will be a
boon to food production in the South, because seed companies will
have an incentive to invest in crops that have long been ignored
by the commercial seed industry. But private companies are not
interested in developing plant varieties for poor farmers because
they know the farmers can't pay. Existing national public breeding
programs tend to focus on seeds for high-yielding, irrigated lands,
leaving resource-poor farmers to fend for themselves.
Half the world's farmers. are poor and can't afford to buy
seed every season, yet poor farmers grow 15-20 percent of the
world's food and directly feed at least 1.4 billion people - 100
million in Latin America, 300 million in Africa, and one billion
in Asia. These farmers depend upon saved seed and their own breeding
skills in adapting other varieties for use on their often-marginal
The seed industry is expected to defend the Terminator technology
by arguing that it will increase the safety of using genetically-engineered
crops. Since the seed carries the sterility trait, say proponents,
it is less likely that transgenic material will escape from one
crop into related species and wild crop relatives. The seed industry
is expected to argue that this built-in safety feature will speed
up biotech advances in agriculture and increase productivity.
Molecular biologists who have studied the patent have mixed
views on the potential ecological hazards of the sterility trait.
The greatest fear is that the sterility trait from first generation
seed might spread via pollen to neighboring crops or wild relatives
growing nearby. Some biologists argue that pollen even if pollen
does escape, it would not pose a threat. The danger is that neighboring
crops could be rendered "sterile" due to cross pollination
- wreaking havoc on the surrounding ecosystem. Given that the
technology is new and untested on a large scale, biosafety issues
remain an important concern.
Reactions to the Terminator
"This is a patent that is too profitable for companies
to ignore," says Camila Montecinos of the Chilean-based Center
for Education and Technology. "We will see pressure on national
regulatory systems to marginalize saved-seed varieties and clear
the way for the Terminator. More than a billion farm families
are at risk."
"Governments should declare 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."
To this, corporate breeders respond 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
Neth Dano of the civil organization SEARICE, based in The
Philippines, 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 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."
Terminate the Terminator
At the fourth Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention
on Biological Diversity meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia, May 4-15,
1998, the Philippine resolution calling for a ban on the technology
was supported by delegates from Kenya, Zambia, Pakistan, Rwanda
and Sri Lanka. When it was announced on May 12th that the Delta
& Pine Land Co. had been acquired by Monsanto, concerns were
heightened about the potential dangers of this technology for
farmers and food security. The COP has requested that the issue
be considered by its Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical
and Technological Advice (SBSITA).
A genetic technology aiming to sterilize seed threatens to
extinguish the right of farmers to save seed and breed new crop
varieties, and threatens the food security of 1.4 billion people.
RAFI and other nongovernmental organizations are calling for a
global ban on the use of Terminator seeds. Both the patent and
the technology should be rejected on the basis of common sense,
food security and agricultural biodiversity.
Hope Shand, Research Director of RAFWSA and Pat Mooney, Executive
Director of RAFI Canada. PO Box 640, Pittsboro, North Carolina
27312; (919) 542-1396, fax (919) 5420069; email@example.com, www.rafi.ca
Corporations & the Third World