Suicidal growth

The debate over 'terminator technology' takes a new turn with the discovery of 36 sterility patent claims by public and private institutes the world over

Published: Monday 15 March 1999

-- (Credit: rajat baran)amid the uproar and indignation over 'terminator technology' -- a technique to make seeds of a transgenic plants sterile, investigations by the Rural Advancement Foundation International ( rafi) , a Canadian non-governmental organisation, have revealed over three dozen additional sterility patent claims by 13 public and private institutes. These patents, like their predecessors, ultimately boil down to 'one-time use seeds'. Its merit is exclusively for the patent-holder who can use the technology to force farmers to purchase the seed again at the beginning of every growing season.

"The patents reveal that engineered seed sterility is not an isolated research agenda. Every major seed company is producing its own version," says Pat Mooney of rafi . "The notorious terminator patent is just the tip of the iceberg." us -based Biotech firm Monsanto, AstraZeneca of the uk /Sweden, Novartis of Switzerland, DuPont/Pioneer of the us , and Aventis are some of the companies that have their own versions of these "traitor" patents.

"We've uncovered dozens of patents that disclose new and more insidious techniques for genetic sterilisation of plants and seeds, and even animals," says Edward Hammond of rafi . "Novartis, AstraZeneca, and Monsanto are among the Gene Giants who have sterile seeds in the pipeline, while other companies like Pioneer Hi-Bred, Rhone Poulenc, and DuPont have technologies that could easily be used to produce them," he adds.

All this has been possible by the technique of cut and paste, activate and deactivate, which can manipulate the genetic material so that the crops behave as is desired. The original two terminator patents -- usda /Monsanto ( us Patent #5,723,765 issued on March 3, 1998) and AstraZeneca ( us Patent #5,808,034 issued on September 15, 1998) -- demonstrate that it is possible to switch on or off specific genes or possibly multi-gene traits by applying an external catalyst.

Following the discovery of the original terminator patent in March 1998, rafi began a detailed study of the possible implications of the new technology. Its study found that the most crucial feature of 'terminator technologies' is that a suicide sequence of exotic genes, triggered by an antibiotic, renders the seeds sterile in the next generation. The terminator, per se, offers no agronomic advantage. Through this technology, it is possible to load a number of commercial characteristics on to a plant variety. But this advantage can be negated by the whims of the proprietary company, during or after sale.

It is, however, a threat to agricultural biodiversity and to the well-being of the 1.4 billion rural people who rely on farm-saved seeds and local plant breeding. In some cases, the seeds will germinate only if growth initiators like herbicides or fertilisers are used. The precise chemical necessary to avoid plant death depends upon the particular genes involved, but the chemically-dependent plant must have it in order to survive. For example, the technology of AstraZeneca's new Terminator patent, wo 9735983, can create plants that need continuous exposure to a particular chemical not only for germination, but for continued healthy growth.

"The biotech industry is largely unregulated and the acquisition trends in agricultural biotech business as well as products are a cause of concern," says a spokesperson of rafi . Pesticide manufacturers are today increasingly developing herbicide-tolerant plants which boost the sale of the seeds and the herbicide. In 1998, 71 per cent of the farm lands under transgenic seeds contained herbicide tolerant traits.

Patents have been extended to insects also. One patent, issued to the University of Texas ( us Patent #5,846,768), suggests that the inventors can activate a dormant suicide trait in insect pests by later spraying the crop with almost any chemical: the sequence can even trigger suicide through 'natural causes' and changed climatic conditions. The Texas researchers have aptly named their invention " grim protein"-- a gene from a fly.

The primary goal of several of the newly-patented techniques is to sterilise seeds so that farmers cannot save and re-plant the seed. "These technologies will give the biotech companies total control over agricultural biotechnology and agriculture," says one expert.

The acceptance of this technology should be decided in 1999-2000, when the issue comes up for debate at the Convention on Biological Diversity, the consultative group on International Agricultural Research ( cigar ) and the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development ( uncstd ). cigar , the world's most important agricultural research network, has said it will not use the technology in its breeding research. While many governments are studying and assessing this technology, the Government of India, taking no chances, has publicly declared its opposition. For now, the technology can only be rejected patent by patent.

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