Thursday, July 29, 1999


Suman Sahai

It has just been brought to light that the earlier consensus on abandoning the much reviled Terminator technology has been breached. The Terminator is alive again. Astonishingly, this step has not come from the corporate sector but from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Two years ago, in the face of widespread condemnation and a personal appeal made by Gordon Conway of the Rockefeller Foundation, Monsanto which was at that point set to buy Delta -Pineland ( co holder with the USDA of the terminator patent) had agreed to suspend any plans to commercialise the terminator technology. The Agriculture Secretary of the US and officials of the Agriculture ministry had promised at that time that the USDA would not support further Terminator research nor permit its use in breeding programs for public release. And now this shocking reversal.

The Monsanto acquisition of Delta-Pineland did not materialise ultimately and Monsanto for the time being would appear to be out of the terminator picture. But in a really nasty turn around, it now turns out that the USDA has positioned itself as radically as the corporate sector and has every intention to revive the terminator technology. According to RAFI, a leading Canadian NGO, apparently there was no commitment to accepting the voluntary ban and the USDA had long ago decided that abandoning the Terminator was not an option.

The USDA received the first of three patents on genetic seed sterilization, jointly with Delta & Pine Land — the world’s largest cotton seed company, in 1998. At its recent board meeting held just days ago, the Advisory Board was informed that the USDA has decided not to unilaterally terminate its contractual agreement with Delta and Pine Land, despite the fact that they have the legal option to do so. On the contrary, it would explore the possibility of restricting its exclusive licensing of its Terminator patents to, Delta & Pine Land, so as to expand the scope of its licensing options.

Terminator technology caught the public attention in India when a band of ill- informed farmers in Karnataka mistakenly thought that Monsanto's transgenic cotton variety , contained the terminator gene. Thanks to this , attention was deflected from Monsanto's shoddy and alarmingly careless field trials of Bt cotton but terminator seeds got better known. Terminator technology is the genetic engineering of plants to produce sterile seeds. It has been widely condemned as a dangerous and morally offensive application of agricultural biotechnology.

The Terminator technology is developed with tools of genetic engineering. Here two gene systems have been brought into play to produce seeds with an in built mechanism that aborts development of the embryo so that germination can not take place and the seed is rendered sterile. The self -destructing seeds are actually hybrids produced by hybridising two transgenics, each containing one of the two gene systems. It is interesting that even when the two gene systems are brought together in the hybrid seed they are viable and can germinate.

In order to control the induction of sterility, a chemical switch has been built in . This switch can be activated by soaking the seeds in tetracycline . Once the tetracycline soaks into the seed tissue, it switches on one of the gene systems which sets in motion the chemical process which will abort the embryo. So in practice, the seed company can produce as much of the seed as they want and just before selling it to the farmer, they can treat the seeds with tetracycline to switch on the sterility inducing gene system.

The seeds provided by the company will grow for one generation and provide a harvest but the seeds produced will be sterile. This will mean the destruction of livelihoods of some 14 crore farmers in the world who depend on farm-saved seeds. In India, the majority of the farming community is self reliant in seed production and does not access seeds from companies. The Terminator concept is one development in agricultural research which has nothing to do with crop improvement or public good . It has only been developed to establish the total monopoly of multinational companies in the seed sector since the technology would make the patent system redundant by making the seed itself sterile and forcing the farmer to go back to the companies.

The Indian government has placed a ban on the import of terminator seeds but there are disturbing new developments in this field which do not bode well for the future. Given the recent history of international negotiations in the field of biotechnology , it is to be anticipated that the US will now increase pressure on members of WTO to accept terminator technology and make it part of the international regime.

Apart from the outcry from developing countries, people in the developed countries are also strongly critical of the terminator seeds. Most civil society groups have called for bans and have demanded that such research be stopped completely since it is totally anti-farmer, will increase risks to food security and has no purpose than to maximise corporate profits.

During the UN Biodiversity Convention meetings in Nairobi in May, the delegates agreed to a moratorium on all field testing and commercialization of Terminator and other similar technologies. Many countries requested an outright ban on Terminator,

and others expressed the concern that Terminator could be used as a trade weapon to force them to obey US trade and patent laws. Some countries even see Terminator as a form of biological warfare since poor farmers could become dependent on seeds that they are prohibited from saving.

Indian policy makers both at the scientific and bureaucratic level must be vigilant about these developments. If the USDA has taken this step, it will be reflected in US policy. The Commerce Ministry must prepare its response for the negotiations in the WTO with respect to the Agreement on Agriculture as also the prospect of setting up a working group on biotechnology . India and other developing countries must bolster the conditions of the biosafety protocol and insist on terminator seeds being kept out. There is widespread anger at the Terminator development and this anger must be used to block this essentially anti-farmer technology from translating into reality.

Wednesday, July 21, 1999


Suman Sahai

The argument put forth by the corporations marketing GM technology is that it will end world hunger ! That is simply not true! Whereas it is true that GM technology theoretically has the potential to increase food production and improve the nutritional quality of food , it is not being used by its dominant practitioners, the private corporations to produce either more or better food . It also needs to be pointed out that producing more food is not going to solve the problem of hunger. As our buffer stocks in India cross 40 million tons, we continue to have pockets of extreme poverty and hunger. Hunger will go only when the poor have money to buy food. Raising food production will therefore have to go hand in hand with increasing incomes of the poor.

Even as the Life Science corporations that control GM research , project themselves as those who will slay the demons of hunger, their focus is on commercial agriculture, not food. Their research is not targeted towards the needs of small farmers. It is aimed at herbicide tolerant varieties of soybean; Bt cotton , Bt corn (for animal feed and sugar syrup ) and the flavr savr tomato. The opponents of GM technology legitimately ask why there are no research investments in crops relevant to the poor, like legumes and pulses, sorghum, millets, cassava and yam? Why is there research on tobacco but not on Lathyrus sativus (khesari dal), the prolonged consumption of which leads to a wasting of the limbs. Why is the corporate sector not doing any work on drought resistance and salinity tolerance ?.

Control of GM technology.

There are serious reservations about the secrecy in the way that GM technology is practiced. It is necessary to create open and transparent systems so that information about GM technology is available to people. The debate on the risks and benefits should be publicly conducted. Reasonable data should be accessible to the public that wants to satisfy itself about the safety or desirability of a particular crop. Independent experts must conduct Field trails of GM crops. At the moment the trend is in -house testing so that the agencies interested in releasing a particular variety, conduct their own trials. This is not credible.

Broad patents and other monopolistic IPR regimes and finally the 'Terminator' technology have caused a public outcry against corporate greed. The use of sterile seed technologies as an instrument of control must be banned. IPRs should be limited to Plant Breeder's Rights and special exemptions from IPRs should be provided for the really poor farmers

Safety issues

GM crops have raised fears about human health, environmental safety and impact on sustainable food production by increasing genetic erosion in the field.

Human health concerns centre around the use of antibiotic markers which are now being phased out. In Europe clearance to GM crops is not given if they contain antibiotic markers. The second health concern is about the likely allergenicity and toxicity of novel foods containing foreign genes.

Environmental concerns are primarily about genetic pollution by foreign genes being transferred along with pollen. We know that this kind of gene transfer happens but we don't yet know its impact. Where the impact will be decidedly negative is in centres of genetic diversity of crop plants. Regions that are centres of origin of particular crop plants must be treated with the utmost caution, perhaps even be out of bounds for GM crops.

We need a lot more data about pollen transfer, and horizontal gene transfer in crops relevant for developing countries. So far pollen and gene transfer studies have been conducted essentially on species and relatives of European crops, under European and American conditions. Most of the genetic diversity is located in developing countries so very great caution will have to be exercised before putting GM crops in the field, in order to prevent accidents leading to genetic pollution.

Should GM technology be a priority for India ?

In India, where post harvest losses run from 15 % to 30 %, the question needs to be asked whether India should invest in GM technology to increase food production. Or should it invest its scarce resources into improving post harvest technologies to minimise losses. Should we not be investing in better storage, better transportation, value addition and processing and increasing the shelf life of perishable foods ?

Research focus in India

If GM research is to be conducted, then research priorities must be clearly set. The target must be food crops of relevance to small farmers and the poor and those crops where conventional breeding has not been successful. The most obvious example is pulses..

GM research targeted at pulses would make sense but GM research targeted at brinjals , as is the case in a premier research institution in Delhi, makes a mockery of science and the social responsibility of science. Public money must be conscientiously and carefully spent to achieve the maximum public good. India allots a modest sum for research and public spending in research is declining. This is not a good trend and at a time like this , research priorities must be very sharply focussed .

Finally, GM technology has clearly reached the market too early. It is still an immature technology with too many unknowns. The science needs a lot of cleaning up and large numbers of studies are needed to clarify safety issues. The science must continue, to provide information, which will help to decide on the ultimate safety of these crops, but there should be a brake on cultivation till we have more data. India is a centre of diversity for important food crops. It needs to proceed with extreme caution with respect to the likely transfer of foreign genes through transgenic crops.