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When the Mississippi-based corporation Delta & Pine Land and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) patented a genetic process in 1998 to make harvested seeds sterile, farmers around the world reacted in horror. For thousands of years, farmers have harvested and saved their seeds in a collective process of agricultural development that continues to feed the world's populations to this day. The public outcry around Terminator seeds resulted in a United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity de facto global moratorium on the technology due to its potential to disrupt global agriculture and rural subsistence. An advisory working group of the Convention is meeting in Granada, Spain, on January 23-27 2006 to make a recommendation on the fate of the UN moratorium.
Terminator technology genetically modifies plants to produce seeds that are sterile and that will not grow if planted after they are harvested. The technology was developed and patented by the multinational seed/agrochemical industry along with the United States government to protect private intellectual ownership of seed technology. Terminator technology disregards the fundamentally collective, farmer-driven history of agricultural innovation by making farmers dependent on corporate control of seed development and distribution, endangering global food security. The governments of Brazil and India have already banned the use of Terminator seeds.
Terminator technology is also called GURT (Genetic Use Restriction Technology)."GURTs are an ultimate expression of corporate greed in claiming ownership of life," observed Lucy Sharratt of the International Ban Terminator Campaign. "This is an agricultural technology that offers no legitimate agricultural benefits--its purpose is purely to protect profits." Although Terminator seeds have not yet been commercialized or field-tested, tests are currently being conducted in greenhouses in the United States. "The introduction of Terminator...is an assault on indigenous knowledge systems and indigenous farmers' faith in their collective intellectual heritage," declared a coalition of Indigenous peoples from Cuzco, Peru, in one of the many written statements submitted to the United Nations. A recent study commissioned by the UN to assess the potential impacts of Terminator technology found that the seeds could cause crop failure and hunger, damaging the environment irreversibly, and would displace traditional farming systems, eroding indigenous knowledge. These processes contribute significantly to the pressures that drive many farmers off their land and into urban areas to work for sweatshop wages, or less, enlarging the urban, landless poor populations
Peruvian Indigenous peoples describe how farmers have exchanged fertile seeds at local markets for centuries in order to improve their crops by natural means. According to Peruvian farmers, if Terminator seeds were to inadvertently enter this exchange system, farmers that plant them could lose their crops and face hunger, undermining trust in the traditional system of maintaining genetic diversity.
Farmer organizations and food system advocates the world over have actively opposed development of Terminator technology for many years. "Genetic resources are the result of millennia of evolution and belong to all of humanity. Agrobiodiversity represents the careful work and knowledge of many generations of rural and indigenous peoples," declares the international peasant farmer coalition Via Campesina in their call for a global ban on Terminator technology. "Farming communities have the right to freely use and protect the diverse genetic resources, including seeds, which have been developed by them throughout history."
Despite this international condemnation, seed and chemical corporations continue pushing hard to commercialize Terminator seeds in collaboration with some governments, including the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Delta & Pine Land is most aggressively testing and patenting the technology in partnership with the USDA Agricultural Research Service. According to the Ban Terminator Campaign, Delta & Pine Land is actively conducting greenhouse trials of Terminator seeds in the United States. In October 2005, Delta & Pine Land and the USDA were granted European and Canadian patents for the Terminator technology they had already patented in the United States. "Once developed, we intend licensing of this technology to be widely available to other seed companies," a Delta & Pine Land representative revealed in an August 2004 statement.
Other corporations and university researchers own Terminator technology patents as well. Syngenta owns or has applied for 11 Terminator patents--more than any other corporation. Monsanto, DuPont, Purdue Research Foundation, and Cornell Research Foundation also own Terminator patents. Public and university research funds have been used to support development of Terminator technology from early on, despite the fact that the purpose of GURTs is to protect private profits by establishing intellectual property rights rather than to help farmers.
Following the Working Group meeting in Spain, the final decision on the de facto moratorium on Terminator technology will be made at the 8th Conference of the Parties (COP8) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity at their meeting on March 20-31 2006 in Curitiba, Parana, Brazil. The Ban Terminator Campaign is organizing broad global support for continuing the global moratorium and legislating nationwide bans on Terminator technology.
"When we plant a seed there's a very simple prayer that every peasant in India says: 'Let the seed be exhaustless, let it never get exhausted, let it bring forth seed next year," notes Indian agricultural diversity advocate Dr. Vandana Shiva. "But that prayer to let the seed be exhaustless seems to be changing into a corporate prayer, 'let this seed get terminated so that I can make profits every year.'"
The Ban Terminator campaign is seeking activist groups for endorsements. To endorse the campaign and for more information, see http://www.banterminator.org/
"Indigenous Peoples of Cusco, Peru on the Potential Impacts of Terminator Submission to the Convention on Biological Diversity in 'Advice on the report of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Genetic Use Restriction Technologies'" 2003.
Ad Hoc Open-Ended Inter-Sessional Working Group on Article 8(j) and Related Provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity. 2003. "Report of the ad hoc technical expert group meeting on the potential impacts of genetic use restriction technologies on smallholder farmers, indigenous and local communities and farmers' rights." (UNEP/CBD/SBSTTA/9/INF/6) www.biodiv.org/doc/meeting.aspx?mtg=sbstta-09&tab=1
Via Campesina. 2002. "Proposals of Via Campesina for sustainable, farmer based agricultural production"
ETC Group and Greenpeace. 2005. "Who owns Terminator Patents?"
Padget Clark, Nic. 1998. "An interview with Dr. Vandana Shiva" in In Motion Magazine
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