Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
February 1, 1999
The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) announced that it has uncovered over three dozen new patents describing a wide range of techniques that can be used for genetic sterilization of plants and seeds. The disclosure follows on the heels of a controversial patent unveiled last year and christened the "Terminator" by RAFI. The Terminator patent, jointly owned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a Monsanto subsidiary, continues to generate worldwide protest and debate because it renders farm-saved seed sterile and forces farmers to buy commercial seed market every year.
According to RAFI, every major seed and agrochemical enterprise is developing its own version of Terminator seeds. Novartis, AstraZeneca, and Monsanto are among the multinational corporations who have sterile seeds in the pipeline, while others like Pioneer Hi-Bred, Rhone Poulenc, and DuPont have seed technologies that could easily be turned into Terminators.
"These technologies are extremely dangerous," explains Pat Mooney of RAFI, "because over 1.4 billion farmers -- primarily poor farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America -- depend on farm-saved seed as their primary seed source. If they can't save seed, they can't continue to adapt crops to their unique farming environments, and that spells disaster for global food security."
The seed sterilization patents uncovered by RAFI reveal that companies are developing "suicide" seeds whose genetic traits can be turned on and off by an external chemical "inducer" mixed with the company's patented agrochemicals. In the not-so-distant future, farmers may be planting seeds that will develop into productive (but sterile) crops only if sprayed with a carefully prescribed regimen that includes the company's proprietary pesticide, fertilizer or herbicide. The latest version of Monsanto's suicide seeds won't germinate unless exposed to a special chemical, while AstraZeneca's technologies outline how to engineer crops to become stunted or otherwise impaired if not regularly exposed to the company's chemicals.
Ignoring potential impacts on farmers around the world, the seed and agrochemical industry argues that engineered seed sterility is highly beneficial to the environment because it will eliminate the problem of horizontal gene transfer -- it will prevent cross-pollination and thus the escape of engineered genes from transgenic plants to nearby weeds or wild relatives. Suicide seeds could eliminate the possibility of genetic pollution and conveniently offers a "green" rationale for acceptance of genetic seed sterility. Industry also argues that they can't continue to develop new, more productive varieties for agriculture unless they get a fair return on their investment.
Seed sterility technology is unacceptable to growing numbers of civil society organizations worldwide who are calling for Terminator technologies to be banned by governments. Farmers, scientists, and others from over 50 countries have sent more than 1850 letters to the U.S. Department of Agriculture calling for an end to the Terminator. According to RAFI, the easiest way for other countries to ban Terminator is for national patent offices to reject these claims on the legal grounds of ordre public (against public morality).
A RAFI report "Traitor Technology" provides an in-depth analysis of the seed sterility patents. For this study and a detailed chart of patent claims, visit RAFI's homepage at www.rafi.org.
Source: RAFI Press Release - 27 January 1999
Contact: RAFI, 110 Osborne Street, Suite 202, Winnipeg MB R3L 1Y5 Canada; phone (204) 453-5259; fax (204) 925-8034; email firstname.lastname@example.org.