Beware of the Terminator Technology

By Geepu Nah Tiepoh

The Perspective

December 13, 2001

Do you remember how our parents in rural Liberia obtained rice and other seeds to plant in upcoming farming seasons? Basically, this is how they managed: At the end of each harvest, they would save some of the rice, beans and other seeds to be replanted in the next farming season. And if the present harvest was not enough to allow for any seed saving, they would buy or borrow seeds from those neighbors who had better harvests and saved seeds. This age-old traditional practice of saving farming seeds is not unique to Liberia and other African societies. In fact, according to some estimates, 1.4 billion rural farmers in the developing world depend on saved seeds. About 20% to 30% of all soybean farms in the US Midwest are planted with farmer-saved seeds. Most North American wheat farmers, including almost all of the farmers on the Canadian prairies, rely on farmer-saved seeds. Thus, this is a practice that has been a livelihood strategy for millions of farmers around the world.

Well, if the Mississippi-based seed company, Delta & Pine Land, and other large seed companies, and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) had their way, then the more than 1.4 billion farmers who depend on this tradition of seed saving would not be able to do so in the near future. In March 1998, Delta & Pine Land and the US Department of Agriculture announced that they had received a US patent on a new biotechnology designed to prevent unauthorized seed saving by farmers. Dubbed as the “Terminator” by the Canadian-based international non-governmental organization, Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), this technology enables a seed company to genetically modify any seeds of any species, including both transgenic and conventionally bred seeds, so that plants that grow from them are automatically sterile. In other words, seeds from such plants could only be consumed, since they could not germinate if a farmer replanted them in future farming seasons.

The primary goal of the developers of this technology is to force large numbers of farmers to continuously buy seeds and food from the commodity markets controlled by the seed companies. Thus, any successful global application of the technology, which prevents farmers from saving seeds, will generate new and increasing markets for these companies in both the North and South. Imagine that all of the farmers who now rely on seed saving were to buy from these companies each and every farming season! This would enormously boost their sales. Also, companies like Monsanto and Delta & Pine Land, which now hold licenses for commercializing Terminator seeds, are hoping that the technology will soon render redundant the job of enforcing their patent rights, especially in the developing world where most farmers depend on saved seeds, and where it has been impossible for them to police their rights. Even in developed countries, like Canada, it has been difficult for these companies to prevent farmers from using patented saved seeds, and they are hoping that the Terminator will solve their enforcement problems in such countries as well. For instance, in 1998 Monsanto sued Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser, in Canada, for replanting genetically modified seeds on which the company claimed patents. Well, thanks to the Terminator, Monsanto will not have to sue farmers like him, because they will not have the incentive in the first place to replant saved seeds since these seeds will not grow if replanted.

A global use of the Terminator technology will allow the commercial seed industry to enter entirely new sectors of the seed market, especially in seeds such as wheat, rice, cotton, soybeans, oats and sorghum. With the top ten seed companies controlling approximately 40% of the commercial seed market, coupled with the continuing decline in public sector breading, this new technology will accentuate farmers’ vulnerability in the market place and reinforce corporate control over the global seed industry. Since the introduction of the technology, it has been universally condemned as an “immoral technology” by various civil society groups, banned by international public agricultural research institutes, and censured by various United Nations agencies. Despite this widespread opposition, however, the US Department of Agriculture announced in August of this year that it had concluded negotiations to license the technology to Delta & Pine Land.

At present, farmers in Africa, Asia and other developing regions are generally allowed to save and replant rice seeds from previous harvests, because patents are not yet firmly enforced there. However, if the Terminator technology becomes globally used in these areas, then farmers will face increasing seed costs if they have to use the new improved seeds. This may substantially increase food insecurity in many areas of the developing world, including Liberia.

The Perspective
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