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. The new technology (see RAFI News Release "Biotech Activists Oppose the Terminator Technology" 13 March 1998) switches a plant's reproductive processes on and off so that harvested seed will be sterile if farmers attempt to replant it, as they have for the past 12 thousand years. The patent's implications are causing a furor among farmers and breeders around the world.
Poor Customers: "It's terribly dangerous," says Hope Shand, "half the world's farmers are poor and can't afford to buy seed every growing season, yet poor farmers grow 15 to 20% of the world's food and they directly feed at least 1.4 billion people - 100 million in Latin America, 300 million in Africa, and 1 billion in Asia. These farmers depend upon saved seed and their own breeding skills in adapting other varieties for use on their (often marginal) lands."
"Private companies aren't interested in developing plant varieties for poor farmers because they know the farmers can't pay," Pat Mooney, RAFI's Executive Director, adds, "even national public breeding programmes tend to focus on high-yielding, irrigated lands leaving resource-poor farmers to fend for themselves. Despite this, patents are being sought everywhere from Madagascar to Mongolia and from Brazil to Vietnam." Proponents of the Terminator maintain that such farmers will be unaffected by the technology while more affluent farmers will have the choice of buying Terminator seed or sticking with standard varieties.
Less Plant Breeding: "That's not how it's going to work," replies Neth DaÒo of SEARICE in the Philippines. DaÒo's organization works with farmers throughout Southeast Asia. "Public breeders wanting access to patented genes and traits will be forced to adopt the Terminator as a licensing requirement," she insists, "The better-off farmers in the valleys will be forced to pay. Their poor neighbours on the hillsides will no longer be able to exchange breeding material with their counterparts in the valleys. Far from improving plant breeding, the Terminator could drive hundreds of millions of farmers out of plant breeding and, since no one else will breed for their needs, out of agriculture altogether."
Spreading Sterility: Camila Montecinos, an agronomist with the Chilean organization, CET, has another concern, "We've talked to a number of crop geneticists who have studied the patent," she says. "They're telling us that it's likely that pollen from crops carrying the Terminator trait will infect the fields of farmers who either reject or can't afford the technology. Their crop won't be affected that season but when farmers reach into their bins to sow seed the following season they could discover - too late - that some of their seed is sterile. This could lead to very high yield losses. If the technology is transmitted through recessive genes, we could see several years of irregular harvests and a general - even dramatic - decline in food security for the poorest farm communities."
BioSafety vs. Food Security? "The corporate strategy will be to argue that the Terminator increases the safety of using genetically-engineered organisms," Hope Shand returns, "They'll claim that since the seed is sterile it is less likely that transgenic material will spread from one crop into related species and wild crop relatives. They'll be trying to get environmental organizations to back the Terminator." "Biosafety at the expense of food security is no solution," RAFI's Pat Mooney agrees. "First, as geneticists are telling us, there is a real danger that the Terminator will bleed into neighbouring fields anyway, and second, human safety through food security has to be our primary concern."
Terminate the Terminator: "We believe there is a need for a global campaign to prevent the use of Terminator technology," Camila Montecinos says. CET is a highly-respected civil society organization linked to a strong Latin American network of farm and rural development organizations. "Farmers and governments everywhere should declare use of the technology as contrary to public order and national security. This is the neutron bomb of agriculture."
Untangling the Debate
1. "More Investment"
"Good News": Terminator will encourage previously-reluctant companies to invest in traditionally open-pollinated crops and so-called "forgotten" crops.
Bad News: Investment in stage one will focus on ways to circumvent the patent. In stage two, firms will invest to load already-developed proprietary traits into Terminator varieties. Stage three investment will be to hype markets to convince farmers Terminator is the wave of the future. By the time stage four rolls around, the commercial seed industry oligopoly will have little relevant competition from open-pollinated varieties.
2. "More Choice"
"Good News" Farmers will still be able to choose between terminator seed and open-pollinated varieties developed by the public sector.
Bad News No they won't. Even public breeders will be pressured by cash-starved institutes to adopt the profitable technique. Don't forget, the USDA developed this anti-farmer technology. Look how public breeders are betraying farmers in Australia and New Zealand charging royalties for varieties in the public domain.
3. "More Varieties"
"Good News" More investment means more varieties for farmers to choose from. Terminator will stimulate a diverse and competitive marketplace of improved varieties.
Bad News There may be more brand names but there won't necessarily be more genuinely-distinct varieties. Companies will pack Terminator seed with already-available proprietary traits like herbicide-tolerance.
4. "More Breeders"
"Good News" Terminator will draw more breeders to non-hybrid crops. This has to be good for farmers and food security.
Bad News The sterility trait will take millions of farmers out of plant breeding, leaving no one to care for their specific agricultural eco-systems.
5. "More Value"
"Good News" Breeders won't make sales unless they can offer superior seed with higher yields and other market traits.
Bad News It's cheaper for the world's ten dominant seed companies (with close to half the commercial market) to simply put pressure on seed regulatory systems and public breeders in order to eliminate competition from open-pollinated varieties. This is what happened in the EU in the 1980's with their integrated Common Catalogue.
6. "More Safety"
"Good News" Because the second generation seed is sterile, it will be safer to introduce genetically-modified organisms into new varieties. This will speed up biotech advances in agriculture and increase productivity.
Bad News No way. The sterility trait from first generation seed will infect neighbouring fields of open-pollinated crops causing crop failures while creating additional markets.
7. "Maybe It'll Fail"
So far, though the patent-holders claim all crops, the Terminator has only worked on cotton and tobacco. Maybe it won't work on others or maybe it will perform inconsistently. Hoping for failure isn't as useful as banning the use. First, it might still spread into other crops from cotton or tobacco. Second, even sporadic germination failures will be sufficient to scare farmers away from saving seed that might not grow. The patent holders don't have to have a perfect technique in order to threaten farmers who can't afford risk.