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"Terminator" Seed Nears Approval

by Danielle Knight

Farmers will no longer be able to save seed from their harvest
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is forging ahead with plans to give a U.S. corporation an exclusive patent on new seed technology, despite an international outcry that it threatens the livelihood of Third World farmers.

Developed jointly by the USDA and Delta and Pine Land Co., a subsidiary of the U.S.-based chemical and biotech giant Monsanto, the new bio-engineering process is called Technology Protection System. It enables a company to genetically alter seeds to produce crops that in turn produce sterile seeds.

Small-farmer advocacy groups and non-profit research organizations charge that the new process, dubbed "terminator- technology," will force farmers to return to the commercial seed market every year since they will no longer be able to save seed from their harvest. This process, sometimes called brown-bagging, is a tradition mainly in developing countries.

"This is the neutron bomb of agriculture"
Expected to be applicable to wheat, cotton, soybeans and other crops, the new technology is jointly owned by the USDA and Delta and Pine, which is based in Mississippi. If given exclusive rights, Delta and Pine and Monsanto executives have indicated, they will apply for patents in 87 countries. Monsanto and the Department of Agriculture say the benefits of the new technology outweigh farmers' other concerns.

"Loss of cost savings from "brown-bagging" must be weighed against the productivity gains to the farmer from having superior new varieties that could increase crop values such as yield and quality... and reduce losses such as those due to pest or adverse soil and weather," says the Department of Agriculture in a statement released this week.

Besides, says the statement, "few U.S. farmers (brown-bag); it is much more common in other countries... (which) will still be able to save their traditional seeds and other public varieties." In other words, if farmers do not wish to use the seed technology they do not have to buy it.

Michael Ruff, a USDA spokesman, argues that the new technology will lead to more research on staple crops -- in developing countries -- from which it is difficult to obtain hybrid seeds -- created by mating different strains of a crop.

Before the existence of this new seed technology, companies were discouraged from investing in crops not easily hybridized.

Hybrid seeds, such as corn, are attractive to corporations because they yield a higher profit as they do not reproduce themselves and farmers have to buy new supplies every year.

But, Hope Shand, research director at the North America-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), says Delta and Pine is aiming to sell the new seed specifically to these traditional farmers who save seeds.

When announcing the new technology earlier this year, Delta and Pine Land said "the patent has the prospect of opening significant worldwide seed markets to (biologically engineered) crops, in which seed currently is saved and used in the next season."

Shand's organization has launched an international campaign against the current patent negotiations. "The Terminator is not about improving agriculture," she says. "It's about sterilizing seeds, wrestling control of seeds and plant breeding from farmers and fattening Monsanto's profits."

"Half the world's farmers are poor and depend upon saved seed and their own breeding skills because they can't afford to buy seed every growing season," she says. "Yet, poor farmers grow 15 to 20 percent of the world's food and they directly feed at least 1.4 billion people in Latin America, Africa and Asia."

"This is the neutron bomb of agriculture," says Camila Montecinos, an agronomist with the Chilean-based Center for Education and Technology, who is calling for a global boycott of the technology.

Neth Dano, director of the Philippines-based SEARICE, an organization that works with farmers in Southeast Asia, says poor farmers traditionally select the best seeds every year by crossing commercial varieties with other rice strains and over time this locally-adapted rice molds itself to the farm's distinct ecosystem.

"This new technology could put an end to all this and increase crop uniformity and vulnerability," says Dano. "Far from improving plant breeding, the new technology could drive hundreds of millions of farmers out of plant breeding and, since no one else will breed for their needs, out of agriculture altogether."

Worry that normal seeds will be sterile because of cross-pollination
Researchers also worry that even if farmers do not buy the new seed, should nearby fields be planted with it, they could find that the following season some of their seeds will be sterile because of cross-pollination. "When farmers reach into their bins to sow seed the following season they could discover -- too late -- that some of their seed is sterile," says Montecinos.

In September at a national conference on agricultural biotechnology in Harare, Zimbabwe, Monsanto officials came under fire from more than 350 government and non-governmental representatives.

While Walley Green from Monsanto's South Africa Office echoed the U.S. Department of Agriculture's stance that farmers do not have to buy the new seed, Zimbabwe officials told how government rules or commercial credit had forced farmers to grow certain crop varieties which in the future could include the new technology.

Besides protests by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), several governments are also voicing concern about the new technology.

In May, the United Nations Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity directed its scientific body to examine the technology's impact on farmers and biodiversity. It also recommended that the "precautionary principle" be applied to the new seed.

India's agriculture minister, Som Pal, told the Indian parliament in August that he has banned the import of seeds containing the gene because of concerns that it would harm the country's agriculture.

The Dutch parliament recently appealed to the European Court of Justice to oppose the European Patent Directive which would recognize the patent on the new technology.

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Albion Monitor November 9, 1998 (

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