CRITICS VILIFY NEW SEED TECHNOLOGY THAT
MONSANTO MAY SOON CONTROL
`TERMINATOR' WOULD PREVENT SAVING OF SEEDS
BY MAKING THEM STERILE By
Bill Lambrecht Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau WASHINGTON
Sunday, November 1, 1998
The scary, hard-to-kill robot played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in his
movies had fewer adversaries than "The Terminator" that Monsanto Co.
soon may control.
Terminator is what the world calls a new genetic technology designed
to render the seeds of crops sterile. It was invented to block farmers
from saving seeds, ensuring that they buy the jazzed-up, genetically
engineered varieties companies are creating.
Technology Protection System - the official name - makes good business
sense. After all, how can the seed business prosper if farmers use
seeds for free?
But corporate bottom lines aren't the issue to farmers, scientists and
activists waging an anti-Terminator campaign around the world. They
see the technology as threatening to an agricultural way of life that
has existed for centuries, and they're bringing heat on St.
* At the World Bank in Washington last week, scientists and farm
economists in the world's largest agriculture research network voted
to condemn the technology and prohibit it in their projects. The
organization is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural
Research, which is committed to battling hunger; it is sponsored by
the United Nations, the World Bank and leading foundations.
* A letter-writing campaign aimed at the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, which co-owns the technology, is picking up steam. The
U.S. government has received more than 2,000 letters and e-mails from
55 countries asking that the Terminator not be licensed.
Monsanto won't control the technology until it completes the purchase
of Delta and Pine Land, the Mississippi seed company that co-owns the
patent; a $1.9 billion deal was announced in May. Several years may
pass before the technology is commercially available.
But Monsanto is feeling the backlash. In Europe and in developing
countries, genetic engineering is viewed not just as a scientific
advancement but as a social force that controls people and what they
grow. For those who think that way, the Terminator has become a
Even fervent supporters of genetic engineering have become critics.
Among them is M.S. Swaminathan, an internationally known geneticist
from India. Swaminathan has received many international awards; on
Oct. 22 in St. Louis, he accepted the Missouri Botanical Garden's
Henry Shaw Medal.
Swaminathan, a leader in the global farm research group meeting in
Washington, said he worries about the Terminator's effects. It "may
have value in the U.S., where farmers plant 1,000 acres," he said.
"But I don't think it will be good for the majority of small farmers
in the world who must keep their seeds."
Plant scientists take pride in developing crops that have high yields
and produce healthy seeds. But when researchers gathered in 1993 at a
U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Lubbock, Texas, the goal was
something entirely different: engineering plants with suicidal
Genetically engineered crops were three years away from American
fields. But companies and their allies in the Agriculture Department
were looking ahead.
"There was a feeling that there needed to be incentives to improve
varieties," recalled Harry Collins, a vice president of Delta and Pine
Land, the nation's largest cotton seed company.
In other words, companies assured of steady profits from their
gene-altered crops would be more inclined to invest in research; that
is the main argument on behalf of the technology. Proponents say
low-income farmers in developing nations have plenty to gain.
"The centuries-old practice of farmer-saved seed is really a gross
disadvantage to Third World farmers who inadvertently become locked
into obsolete varieties because of their taking the easy road and not
planting newer, more productive varieties," Collins wrote recently.
The researchers in Texas mapped out the protection system, filed for a
patent and began perfecting their invention. It has worked for tobacco
and cotton. Researchers expect that it also will work in other
self-pollinating plants; among them soybeans, wheat and rice.
Often the Terminator is referred to as a gene, but it's actually three
genes incorporated into a plant. Two come from bacteria; they prevent
a mature plant's seeds from manufacturing a protein needed to
In March, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded Patent No.
5,723,765, called "Control of Plant Gene Expression," to the
Agriculture Department and to Delta and Pine Land. The government and
the company hope to wrap up negotiations giving Delta a licensing
agreement by the end of the year.
That agreement is critical in the drive to secure patents around the
world. Michael Ruff, who is handling the negotiations for the
Agriculture Department, said that Terminator patents have been sought
in nearly 30 countries.
An internal memorandum circulated recently among Agriculture
Department officials calls for an extra layer of review because of the
sensitivity of the technology. It orders government scientists to get
special permission for Terminator research. A copy was obtained by the
The memo spells out a potential benefit of the technology that
companies don't highlight because they don't care to raise the specter
of escaping genes. By rendering plants sterile, the memo says,
Terminator can block the spread of undesirable traits between
transgenic crops and related wild species in the environment.
Power of a name
"The Terminator" was coined by Patrick Mooney, a Canadian who is
executive director of Rural Advancement Foundation International.
Mooney's organization, better known as RAFI, often criticizes genetic
technologies and efforts by American companies to export the
business-friendly, U.S. patent system around the world.
"In my 30 years dealing with these issues, I've never seen anything
that caused such an instant reaction. This is clear to people, and it
is threatening," Mooney said.
Monsanto spokesman Phillip Angell observed, "If your goal is to
demonize a technology, that's a great name."
RAFI is behind the campaign loading up Agriculture Department
computers with e-mails arguing that the government shouldn't be
spending tax dollars on research benefiting big companies. The
Agriculture Department responds by saying that farmers ultimately will
benefit from a larger selection of crop varieties.
Sandy Hays, an Agricultural Research Service spokeswoman, likened the
practice of seed-saving to the business of automobiles.
"It would be like going down to the car dealership and buying a car
and the next year the car had babies," she said. "You would never need
to buy another car."
Meanwhile, Monsanto is getting blamed, in part because of the
company's lead in genetic technologies. In Europe, where genetic
engineering is fiercely debated, farmers and environmental
organizations routinely describe the Terminator as an unwanted
controlling force. The issue also is a flash point in India, where 70
percent of farmers save seed and where Monsanto is working to expand
Suresh Babu, an Indian native and a supporter of genetic engineering,
said he sees the controversy blocking acceptance of genetically
"Agriculture ministers hear the word Terminator, and bang, they want
to ban anything that is genetically modified," said Babu, an economist
for the International Food Policy Research Committee in Washington.
The Terminator struck a chord among the 400 agriculture researchers
gathered at the World Bank last week for their annual meeting. On one
hand, leaders of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural
Research trumpeted the potential of genetic engineering to combat
hunger. But on the other hand, they felt strongly enough to take a
"We're talking about people who live on the knife's edge of
subsistence," said Ismail Serageldin, the World Bank vice president
who directs the group. "These people's very existence depends on their
ability to grow the next crop."
Angell, Monsanto's director of corporate communications, said people
react as they do because the technology "is new and frightening to
them and has a terrible name." He argued that rather than taking away
choices, the system can provide people with protection from pests,
resistance to drought and benefits unavailable in countries where
companies won't operate without patent protection.
"This is an enabling technology that can leapfrog barriers that may
take years to overcome," he said.
The terminator issue
Terminator is a new genetic technology designed to render the seeds of
crops sterile. It was invented to block farmers from saving seeds,
ensuring that they buy the genetically engineered varieties companies
Proponents say the program makes good business sense. Farmers no
longer can use seeds for free.
Opponents say the technology threatens an agricultural way of life
that has existed for centuries.
Copyright c 1998 Post Dispatch and Pulitzer Technologies Inc.