New Terminator Patents Threaten Food Security


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New Terminator Patents Threaten Food Security
March 8, 2002

In a recent news release, the ETC Group* announced that the biotechnology industry continues to aggressively pursue the development of genetically modified seeds engineered for sterility. The ETC Group uncovered two new patents on Terminator technology--one held by Dupont (which owns the world's largest seed company) and the other by Syngenta (the world's largest agrochemical corporation). New Terminator patents underscore the ongoing investment of the agrochemical industry in the goal of genetic seed sterilization and the urgent need for governments to ban these technologies before they are commercialized.

Terminator has been widely condemned as an immoral technology that threatens global food security, especially for the 1.4 billion people whose food supplies and livelihoods depend on seed saving. If commercialized, the technology will prevent farmers from saving seed from their harvest for planting the following season. In 1999, due to widespread public opposition to Terminator seeds, both Monsanto and AstraZeneca (now Syngenta) publicly vowed not to commercialize genetic seed sterilization technology.

Syngenta holds the largest number of Terminator patents to date (at least seven). In 1999, Zeneca's research and development director wrote that Terminator was "one piece of technology we did not want to take forward, and the project was stopped in 1992." However, the ETC group points out that the company continued to file for and win Terminator patents since 1992. The newest Syngenta patent was issued on May 8, 2001. The application date was March 22, 1997, long after Zeneca claims to have stopped the project.

The new Syngenta patent does not describe its technology as a method to prevent farmers from saving seed, but as an approach to prevent unwanted gene flow from transgenic varieties. In theory, any seed that falls into unintended soil would die without the application of a chemical inducer. According to the patent, "[Terminator technology] would limit the risk of transgene escape to non-crop species thus avoiding the spreading of plants with [genetically engineered] invasiveness or weediness." (US patent 6,228,643 )

The ETC group believes that it is irresponsible and unacceptable to suggest that society must accept genetic seed sterilization as a method for solving industry's genetic pollution problem. Food security for poor people must not be sacrificed to gain commercial acceptance for an unsafe and unproven technology.

The biotech industry is reeling from the most recent debacles involving genetic pollution from transgenic seed and pollen. The Mexican Ministry of Environment confirmed in January 2002 that indigenous farmers' maize varieties in Oaxaca and Puebla have been contaminated with DNA from genetically engineered (GE) maize. It is illegal to grow GE maize in Mexico precisely because of the potential threat to the world's primary center of maize diversity. In Canada, genetic pollution from GE canola pollen is a menace for organic farmers who cannot certify their canola crops as GE-free. On January 10, 2002, organic farmers in Saskatchewan filed a class action suit against Aventis and Monsanto.

"It is particularly alarming that the Gene Giants (agrochemical/biotechnology companies) and some governments are promoting Terminator under the guise of biosafety," explains Julie Delahanty of ETC group. "The industry's primary goal is to gain market acceptance for seed sterility as a biosafety tool, which will then give them carte blanche to use it as a monopoly tool for maximizing seed industry profits," said Delahanty.

Terminator patents have been granted to multinational agrochemical and seed corporations all over the world. Most notably, Terminator patents exist in Australia, South Africa, South Korea, the U.S., Canada, and most of Western Europe. Patents have been also been filed in Brazil, Norway, Japan, Israel, New Zealand and the Slovak Republic.

Critics of Terminator are worried that unless governments move quickly to ban the technology, the agrochemical industry will soon have patented sterile seeds on the market. In the months leading up to Rio+10, intergovernmental organizations have a critical role to play in raising global awareness and recommending actions to ban the technology.

COP6: The Sixth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity meets in The Hague, April 8-26, 2002. The ETC Group hopes that after numerous studies on genetic trait control technology, COP6 will ban Terminator as an anti-farmer technology that threatens biodiversity and food sovereignty.

World Food Summit Five Years Later: When governments meet June 10-13, 2002 in Rome, the ETC Group hopes they will reaffirm the findings of the FAO's** Panel of Eminent Experts on Ethics, which concluded that Terminator seeds are unethical, and recommend that member nations ban the technology.

World Summit on Sustainable Development (Rio+10): Heads of State meeting in South Africa August 26 to September 4, 2002 will have the opportunity to call for a ban on Terminator technology as an immoral application of genetic engineering that threatens biodiversity and food security.

The ETC Group has published a new brochure, "Terminate Terminator in 2002: Defend Food Sovereignty." It can be downloaded free at http://www.etcgroup.org/documents/terminatorbrochure02.pdf.

*The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, formerly RAFI.
**The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

For more information, see http://www.etcgroup.org/documents/new_termpatent_jan2002.pdf.

Sources: ETC Group news release, January 31, 2002; ETC Group brochure, Terminate Terminator in 2002, February 19, 2002.

Contact: The ETC Group International Office, P.O. Box 68016 RPO Osborne, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R3L 2V9 Canada; phone (204) 453-5259; fax (204) 284-7871; email etc@etcgroup.org; Web site http://www.etcgroup.org.

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