Sterile Seeds Patent Sparks Debate

By CURT ANDERSON
.c The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - A new technique that makes seeds sterile is sowing
controversy among critics who say it will protect big-business profits while
unfairly ending the age-old farm practice of saving a crop's seeds for next
year.

``We call it terminator technology,'' said Hope Shand, research director for
the Rural Advancement Foundation International in Pittsboro, N.C. ``It will
force farmers to return to the same company year after year for their seeds.''

Agriculture Department researchers and the Delta and Pine Land Co. of Scott,
Miss., patented the new procedure this year for cotton seed. Companies like
Delta and Pine - now being acquired by biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. - want
in effect to copyright their plants developed through costly genetic
engineering.

``The concern was a company might spend a whole lot of time and a whole lot of
money in developing new varieties,'' said Sandy Miller Hays, information
director for USDA's Agricultural Research Service. ``Everybody runs out and
buys the seeds, collects them at the end of the year and says thank you very
much.''

One of the hottest trends in agriculture is use of genetics to develop plant
varieties that resist disease or pests or include traits sought after by
consumers such as low-fat oils. Big companies like Monsanto, DuPont and
Pioneer Hi-Bred International are investing heavily in biotechnology.

Harry Collins, who directed the research for Delta and Pine, said the new
technique involves inserting an array of new genes in a cotton plant that -
when sprayed with a chemical compound - turns off a ``blocker'' switch that
normally allows the plant's seeds to be fertile.

These seeds produce cotton normally, generally with moneymaking benefits from
genetic engineering. But when the plant produces seeds, they don't germinate
because the ``blocker'' gene doesn't work, sending the farmer back to the
dealer for next year's supply.

So far, the technique is proven to work on cotton and tobacco seeds, but
Collins said it should be effective in wheat, soybeans and numerous other
crops. It will probably be 2004 before the cotton seed is ready for commercial
use, but the breakthrough already is stirring heavy criticism.

Jane Rissler, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said
preventing farmers in poor countries from savings seeds could trigger more
hunger because they cannot afford to buy the expensive genetically modified
seeds.

``The companies want to control all the seeds,'' Rissler said. ``It gives the
lie to the notion that the biotechnology industry wants to feed the world.
It's the wrong way to go if you think biodiversity is important.''

Seed companies already control the world's supply of hybrid corn seeds. In
previous decades, hybrids developed in ways that prevent them from producing
seeds after harvest that would grow into a viable plant the next year.

Millions of farmers worldwide depend on saving wheat, soybean, rice and many
other seeds to produce food, Shand said.

``It is outrageous that the Agriculture Department used taxpayer money to pay
for this research,'' she said. ``It is dangerous and immoral.''

But USDA's Hays said without some protection, seed companies won't continue
development of the new plant varieties that could actually improve yields in
the Third World and move some farmers out of subsistence and into profits.

``We think in the long run this will benefit farmers, and they will have
access to many more varieties,'' she said.

In addition, Delta and Pine's Collins said sterile seeds would prevent a
genetic trait such as resistance to certain insects from escaping into a wild
relative plant, causing a dangerous mutation that could rapidly make weeds
immune from natural enemies.

``This is an excellent means of stopping that,'' Collins said.

Hays said it will be years before the process is transferred to other crops
for commercial use. Delta and Pine has until Oct. 31, 1999, to negotiate a
deal with USDA on how the new technique might be marketed to other seed
companies.

The company and USDA have applied for patents in 78 countries, a process that
Shand and other sustainable agriculture groups are hoping to stop.

``These companies did not invent the plant they are marketing. They are adding
new qualities and refining seeds in certain ways,'' Shand said. ``No plant
breeder or genetic engineer started from scratch.''

AP-NY-05-23-98 1056EDT


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