What is the “terminator seed” proposed for use in agriculture? Why is it so controversial?

What is the “terminator seed” proposed for use in agriculture? Why is it so controversial?

—Jill Dorion, Missoula, MT

Since the dawn of civilization farmers have saved the seeds spawned by their crops and re-planted them to grow more crops. Such is the natural science of agriculture that has provided food for thousands of years.

But a technology developed in 1998 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Delta & Pine Land Company, the U.S.’s largest producer of cotton seeds, genetically-engineers seeds to produce sterile offspring after the given crops yield their annual harvest. Though not yet commercially available, this would force farmers to purchase new seeds every year, ensuring greater sales for seed companies.

Called “terminator” technology, the USDA and biotech companies like Monsanto (which now owns Delta & Pine) claim that it is not about profits but instead about preventing the escape of genetically modified plants into the wild, which could impact local plant diversity. The technology also protects companies from farmers trying to pirate their seeds. USDA molecular biologist Melvin Oliver, terminator’s primary inventor, says: “Our mission is to protect U.S. agriculture and to make us competitive in the face of foreign competition. Without this, there is no way of protecting the patented seed technology.”

Farm, food and environmental advocates alike say that, well, that’s exactly what does make it about profits. They fear the technology could put small farmers around the world out of business, as they cannot afford to buy new seeds every year. This could, in turn, spell widespread starvation for those who depend upon them for their sustenance. Indian author and human rights advocate Vandana Shiva, writing in her 2000 book, Stolen Harvest, calls terminator technology one of many “innovative ways to steal nature’s harvest, the harvest of the seed, and the harvest of nutrition.”

Indeed, the technology could enable seed companies, which spend millions every year filing and protecting patents on individual seed strains, to enter new markets in developing countries, further extending their economic power and limiting the number of different agricultural strains being cultivated.

“Having a handful of biotechnology companies controlling the production and distribution of seeds makes farmers hostage to the economic exploitation by this industry,” says Gary Goldberg of the American Corn Growers Association. And speaking in support of legislation introduced in May 2007 to ban the testing and commercializing of terminator seed technology in Canada, Colleen Ross of Canada’s National Farmers Union said, ”
genetic seed sterilization is dangerous and blatantly anti-farmer—suicide seeds threaten to intensify corporate control over Canadian agriculture and offer no benefits for farmers.”

In 2000, the United Nations (UN), under its Convention on Biodiversity, got into the terminator fray by declaring a global moratorium on the technology due to environmental as well as socio-economic concerns about its use. In March 2006 the UN upheld the moratorium, in the face of challenges by several countries—including Australia, Canada and New Zealand—pushing for commercialization

CONTACTS: Convention on Biodiversity; Stolen Harvest