The Guardian February 24, 1999


"Suicide Seeds" threaten global food security

RAFI, the progressive Canadian-based Rural Advancement Foundation 
International, has uncovered over three dozen new patents describing a wide 
range of techniques that can be used for the genetic sterilisation of 
plants and seeds. "The patents reveal that engineered seed sterility is not 
an isolated research agenda  it's the Holy Grail of the ag biotech 
industry", says Pat Mooney of RAFI.

The disclosure follows on the heels of a controversial patent unveiled last 
year, christened the "Terminator" by RAFI, that continues to generate 
worldwide protest and debate because it renders farm-saved seed sterile  
forcing farmers to return to the commercial seed market every year.

The Terminator patent is jointly owned by the US Department of Agriculture 
and a Monsanto subsidiary, Delta & Pine Land Co.

"The notorious Terminator patent is just the tip of the iceberg", explains 
RAFI's Mooney. "Every major seed and agrochemical enterprise is developing 
its own version of suicide seeds", he adds.

"We've uncovered dozens of patents that disclose new and more insidious 
techniques for genetic sterilisation of plants and seeds  and even 
animals", says Edward Hammond of RAFI.

"Novartis, AstraZeneca, and Monsanto are among the Gene Giants who have 
sterile seeds in the pipeline, while others like Pioneer Hi-Bred, Rhone 
Poulenc, and DuPont have technologies that could easily be turned into 
Terminators."

The primary goal of several of the the newly patented techniques is to 
sterilise seed so that farmers cannot save and re-plant seed.

A number of the patents use benign-sounding technical terms such as 
"controlled gene expression" linked to "inducible promoters" to describe 
their sterilisation techniques.

Other patents describe "killer genes" that destroy pollen, or "GRIM 
proteins" that do the same to invertebrates or even mammalian cells. A 
patent owned by Astra/Zeneca candidly admits that their sterilisation 
processes "are not desirable per se".

Sterile seeds: Why worry?

"These technologies are extremely dangerous", explains Mooney, "because 
over 1.4 billion farmers  primarily poor farmers in Africa, Asia and 
Latin America  depend on farm-saved seed as their primary seed source. If 
they can't save seed, they can't continue to adapt crops to their unique 
farming environments, and that spells disaster for global food security.

"Genetic seed sterility is not about improving the productivity or quality 
of crops, it's a quest to increase seed industry profits", he adds.

"First and foremost, these technologies are intended to force farmers to 
buy seed every season and to take still more crop production control away 
from farmers."

Inducing chemical sales

The new generation of patents goes beyond the genetic neutering of crops. 
The patents reveal that companies are developing suicide seeds whose 
genetic traits can be turned on and off by an external chemical "inducer" -
- mixed with the company's patented agrochemicals.

In the not-so-distant future, we may see farmers planting seeds that will 
develop into productive (but sterile) crops only if sprayed with a 
carefully prescribed regimen that includes the company's proprietary 
pesticide, fertiliser or herbicide.

The latest version of Monsanto's suicide seeds won't even germinate unless 
exposed to a special chemical, while AstraZeneca's technologies outline how 
to engineer crops to become stunted or otherwise impaired if not regularly 
exposed to the company's chemicals. RAFI calls it "Traitor Technology".

Sound far-fetched? Not according to Novartis (a Swiss life industry giant), 
whose patent (US 5,789,214) describes a process for chemically regulating a 
number of developmental processes in plants  such as germination, 
sprouting, flowering, fruit ripening, etc.

The patent specifically mentions that the chemical regulator can be applied 
to plants in combination with a fertiliser or herbicide.

"If the companies can genetically program suicide seeds to perform only 
with the application of proprietary pesticide or fertiliser, it means they 
will increase sales of their patented agrochemicals and other proprietary 
inputs", explains Edward Hammond of RAFI.

"Chemically-dependent suicide seeds are a dazzling technological 
achievement and a brilliant marketing strategy, but it's grim news for 
farmers and the environment", concludes Hammond.

From Bio-safety to Bio-Serfdom

"We'll be hearing plenty of industry arguments in favour of engineered seed 
sterility and Traitor Technologies, but the ultimate goal", says Pat Mooney 
of RAFI, "is not breeding benefits or biosafety, but bioserfdom.

"If Traitor technologies are developed for commercial sale", predicts 
Mooney, "farmers will be forced to surrender control of their seed supply 
and the Gene Giants will ultimately dictate what the farmer grows, how to 
grow it, and where to sell it.

"Seed sterility is not about ensuring quality or productivity, it's a power 
grab pure and simple."

"The seed and agrochemical industry will argue that engineered seed 
sterility is highly beneficial to the environment because it will eliminate 
the problem of horizontal gene transfer  it will prevent cross-
pollination and thus the escape of engineered genes from transgenic plants 
to nearby weeds or wild relatives", explains Hope Shand of RAFI.

There is concern that transgenic plants could pass genes on to wild plant 
relatives  thus creating "superweeds" that could wreak havoc on the 
environment. Suicide seeds could put to rest the spectre of genetic 
pollution, and it conveniently offers a "green" rationale for acceptance of 
genetic seed sterility.

No matter what rationale is used by the Gene Giants to engineer social 
acceptance of seed sterility, the technology is unacceptable to growing 
numbers of civil society organisations around the world who are calling for 
Terminator Technologies to be banned by governments.

The spectre of genetic seed sterilisation is so serious that Terminator 
technologies will be debated at several United Nations bodies, including 
the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in April, the Convention on 
Biological Diversity in May, and the UN Commission on Science, Technology, 
and Development also in May.

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