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.

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