By mary oldham
The fate of farmers rights and age-old seed saving and breeding practices has come into question with the development of a new technology that would render second-generation crops sterile. This product of genetic engineering, called the “terminator gene” by the media, and “genetic use restriction technology” by developers, is being developed in response to increasingly complex intellectual property rights and patents for engineered crops. If seed saved from the previous year is not viable, this prevents the use of patented technology. If this technology is implemented, farmers will be able to plant a crop for one year but will not be able to save the seed, forcing them to buy seed the next year from the company.
For farmers in the US, this is another level of dependence added on to already strict seed-purchasing contracts. In developing nations, such technology would disrupt traditional practices of seed-saving, potential to breed seeds, and development of a diverse seed bank. It would increase dependence on private developers (often multinational) for seed and chemicals if they are required for use with the crop (ie.round-up spray for round-up tolerant corn). The kicker is that this technology has ramifications for more than just the farmer that opts to use it. If pollen from a farmer’s field that uses crops that contain the terminator gene drifts onto a neighbor’s field that does not use this technology, the neighbor could be sued for infringement of intellectual property rights if the technology is found on her field, as is the case with genetically modified crops. However, with the advent of terminator genes, this farmer might also now lose her ability to save seed in subsequent years if her crops are contaminated.
Uncertainty regarding the nature of genetic engineering has many worried if this gene could threaten our ability to produce crops. While this could become a heated political battle in the US, its consequences are most worrisome in developing nations where intellectual property rights are not backed by a sound legal framework for all parties. Additionally, the loss of ability to save seed or the even graver threat of crop sterilization is a threat to food security as well as economic equity and integrity. Monsanto, genetically modified giant corporation, that promised never to commercialize this technology in 1999 is now moving to remove a UN moratorium on the technology (3). This technology could have serious implications for traditional and industrial agriculture alike. Keep an eye out; the terminator might soon be back. Swanson, T. “Biotechnology, Agriculture and the Developing World: The Distributional Implications of Technological Change”. Northhamption, MA: Edward Elgar, 2002: 249-270. Weintraub, Arlene. “The Outcry over ‘Terminator Genes’ in Food”. 14 July 2003. Businessweek online