Monsanto and Terminator Seeds

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ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

Is it time to terminate the terminator?

In
March 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Delta
and Pine Land Company obtained a patent for their jointly
developed “Technology Protection System.” TPS, or
“terminator” seeds as they’ve been dubbed by their
adversaries, produce plants that are genetically programmed
to kill their own embryos. Second-generation seeds are thus
sterile and cannot be saved for next year’s planting.
Proponents of TPS argue that, by compelling gardeners and
farmers to buy new seed annually, the technology will
ensure the financial incentives necessary to encourage
researchers to genet really engineer crops that are, for
instance, drought or pest resistant (such genetic traits
would be “stacked” onto TPS). Opponents insist the inherent
dangers far outweigh any potential benefits and are calling
for a ban on the technology.

Nine weeks after the patent
was issued, Delta and Pine signed an agreement to merge
with Monsanto, an industry giant that, since 1996, has
spent $8 billion acquiring seed and biotechnology
interests, making it the second largest seed company in the
world. (The Delta/Monsanto merger now hinges on justice
Department approval.)

Critics worry that if Monsanto
manages to corner an even larger chunk of the global
growers market while at the same time reducing the repeat
viability of seeds-the result will be economic hardship for
farmers, particularly those in poor, underdeveloped
nations.

But beyond the economic concerns, say opponents,
lie an array of potential ecological and agricultural
risks. including cross-pollination with-and thus
sterilization of neighboring crops.

In response to the
above and other loudly voiced concerns, Delta and Pine Vice
President of Technology Transfer Harry B. Collins notes
that farmers worldwide have already embraced such feats of
genetic engineering as inbred herbicides. “Given the
opportunity, farmers will go to the technology,” he says.
Yet, with public funds for agricultural research on the
decline, the future of such technology depends, argues
Collins, on guaranteeing private researchers a return on
their investment.

Longtime champion of sustainable
agriculture Will Rapp isn’t buying it. There is, he argues,
“no agronomic benefit” to the use of terminator seeds. As
founder and president of the Vermont-based Gardener’s
Supply Company, Rapp is at the forefront of a grassroots
letter-writing campaign calling for a halt to the
development of terminator technology and a moratorium on
the further patenting of plant genes.