Are Sterile Seeds a Threat to Small Farmers?
They escaped from a laboratory in the dusty confines of Lubbock, Texas. But now they plan to colonize the world. If a newly-patented seed technology is on the market by 2005, many of the new millennium’s crops will carry an intentional genetic defect: the seed they produce will be sterile. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and co-developer Delta and Pine Land Company call it Technology Protection System (TPS), but to almost everyone else these impotent seeds are known as Terminators.
Research and development of transgenic (genetically modified) seeds is expensive. In 1998, Delta and Pine Land spent over $16 million on its landmark product. Monsanto spent $1.8 billion on similar technology. With Terminator, which is genetically programmed to sterilize its own seed, companies would be able to develop high-value seed without watching their investments being buried, like the proverbial 40 talents, in the ground. How? Farmers will no longer be able to save a portion of their crops’ seed for the next season; they will have to purchase it fresh for each planting. Seed companies see it as protecting intellectual property, allowing them to develop transgene technology in more crops without the risk of losing money when farmers save seeds. The supposed benefit for farmers: higher yields of hardier crops.
But is the trade-off realistic? Larry Breech, chairman of the National Farmers Union environmental committee, doesn’t think so. Saving seed, Breech explains, involves much more than storing it in the barn over winter. Farmers carefully select and condition seed to produce crops adaptable to their own regions’ weather, pest and disease problems and soil. “Good seed from such an operation,” says Breech, “has many of the qualities that [seed companies] are currently making genetic modifications to produce: insect, disease, and drought resistance, as well as food quality.”
Walter Hochman and his son Dale farm 300 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and they have a constant battle with the bottom line. “The cost of farming stays the same,” Hochman explains, “but the price of crops goes down. Wherever I meet other farmers, they all say the same thing: They’re just barely making it.”
This spring, the Hochmans will plant Monsanto’s “Round-up Ready” soybeans (genetically modified to be resistant to Monsanto’s own Round-up herbicide). Purchase of the seeds comes with a limited license to produce a single commercial crop. Using the seed for anything else is strictly prohibited, so the Hochmans won’t save any for replanting.
Farmers routinely save seed from their wheat and oat fields, but not for long, if Terminator comes to dominate the market. “They’re just putting the small guy out of business,” says Hochman, whose family has farmed the land since 1935. “They’ve got us over a barrel.”
Dr. Harry Collins, vice president of technology transfer at Delta and Pine Land Company (D&PL), disagrees. “Farmers will always have a choice. If they don’t want TPS, they can buy seed without it.” But will seed companies continue to provide conventional seed when Terminator guarantees a greater return? Collins says that D&PL will produce conventional seed as long as farmers want it, but there are no guarantees.
And farmers may feel the economic squeeze at both ends. European consumers don’t trust transgenic crops, and their reluctance to purchase them cost the U.S. two million tons of corn targeted for Spain and Portugal last year. Japan buys one-third of the United States’ feed grain exports, but because Japanese consumers also resist purchasing transgenic crops, the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is considering biotechnology labeling. Tom Sleight, executive director of the U.S. Grains Council, says the U.S. is “trying to help Japan accept safeguards that are already in place.”
Environmental concern over Terminator has sent ripples through grassroots environmental groups, scientific communities and non-governmental organizations throughout the world. Will Terminator provide food for developing countries—as seed companies proclaim—or drive indigenous farmers, who couldn’t afford to buy new seed every year, out of existence? Will unexpected allergic reactions trigger health problems? Will the use of antibiotics to “switch on” the Terminator gene result in lingering effects on ecosystems or human health?
Separating fact from fiction is difficult, and consensus is lacking. But one myth can be laid to rest: Sterility does not spread. Planting Terminator crops will not wipe out nearby plants. In fact, USDA touts Terminator as a means to prevent transgene escape and spread.
Dr. Melvin Oliver, USDA scientist and co-inventor of Terminator, explains. “Rice could be a target for TPS, and it has a close relative that is a real nuisance: a weed called red rice. Contamination of rice fields with red rice causes major problems for the industry. Farmers would love to have a “Round-Up Ready” rice so they could kill off the contaminating red rice and leave the normal rice untouched. However, the fear of producing a Round-Up-resistant red rice has paralyzed this effort. TPS could solve this problem.” Because Terminator’s built-in self-destruct gene would exist in the rice pollen, red rice infected with the herbicide-resistant gene would theoretically produce only sterile seed.
Oliver stresses that the process “is designed for self-pollinating crops—in particular cotton, wheat and soybeans. In each of these crops, the spread of pollen to neighboring crops is extremely limited—less than one percent. Loss of habitat is not a real possibility. The natural seed bank in the ground is enormous and is unaffected by TPS.”
Martha L. Crouch, associate professor of biology at Indiana University, cautions that “Terminator genes may fail to produce toxins because of a phenomenon called gene silencing.” In other words, introduced genes don’t always do what they are supposed to do. Suppose that in a few of the herbicide-resistant rice plants, the Terminator gene failed to be activated. Red rice infected by these plants would produce viable seed. While chances of this occurring are minimal, one infected red rice plant producing viable seed would give its offspring an herbicide-resistant advantage.
To date, the technology has been attempted only in cotton and tobacco plants. No Terminator crops have yet been field-tested. USDA, D&PL and Monsanto (whose bid to purchase D&PL has been accepted by D&PL shareholders and awaits Justice Department approval) will continue research before Terminator is expected to hit the market in 2005. USDA, in response to widespread criticism of its role in partnering with D&PL, is currently revising its research financing policies to include input from critics of transgenic technology.