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'Terminator' seeds back on corporate agenda

For over a decade, Monsanto and other corporations have reluctantly acknowledged an international moratorium on what are known as “terminator” seeds. These make crops die off after one harvest, forcing farmers to buy new seeds for planting. All that could be about to change as a result of pressure from Brazilian landowners.

A massive movement of farmers and biodiversity groups in the 1990s put Monsanto on the back foot and the corporation froze plans to market terminator seeds. Campaigners pointed out that the seeds could also be used to introduce traits crucial to plant growth, which would be triggered only if proprietary chemicals were applied. Naturally, Monsanto, Syngenta and the other seed corporations would sell those too.

In 2000, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity effectively blocked genetic use restriction technologies, which is the polite term for what many refer to as suicide seeds. Nearly 200 countries signed up to the moratorium. But Monsanto’s lobbyists kept up the pressure.

They found support in Brazil, where major landowners have repeatedly tried to get the government to drop the ban. They failed to have the moratorium lifted in 2007 after the UN Convention reaffirmed its policy. Now landowners have forced the issue back on the agenda of a key Congressional committee where support for allowing the use of terminator seeds is gathering pace.

One of the more bizarre arguments deployed is that the terminator seeds are safer than other genetically-modified products because they allegedly eliminate the risk of contamination of neighbouring land. The landowners want to plant fast growing trees and non-food crops to cash in on the global demand for biofuels. 

The ETC campaign group, which monitors the ecological consequences of new technologies, totally rejects these spurious arguments. It points out that the sterility trait will “inevitably bleed into neighbouring fields and crops meaning that farmers will unwittingly plant seeds that they will never be able to harvest”. A petition signed by tens of thousands of people across Brazil warns that if the law is changed in favour of terminator seeds, it will threaten “farmers and food security and agricultural biodiversity worldwide”.

At the heart of the terminator technology is what ETC describes as “a ground-shifting market strategy”. Suicide seeds can produce anywhere from two to four times the profitability of non-terminator seeds and if introduced would reinforce the stranglehold that a handful of transnationals already have. Syngenta, Bayer, BASF, Dow, Monsanto and DuPont together dominate the seed market as well as the agrochemical market. 

A key judgement in the United States Supreme Court earlier this year reinforced Monsanto’s position while a new European Union draft law will also strengthen the hand of the major corporations. In the US, the court ruled that farmers must pay Monsanto each time they plant its GM soybeans.

Judges rejected the argument of farmer Vernon Bowman that because the company’s herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready soybeans replicate themselves, he was not violating the company’s patent by planting progeny seeds he bought elsewhere. Their ruling was essentially a defence of patent law, which protects corporate products from being copied.

Meanwhile, a draft EU law on plant reproductive material would stop the exchange and distribution of traditional seeds. Ben Raskin, head of horticulture for the Soil Association, warns:

If this regulation is passed, not only will we lose a huge number of plant varieties, we will lose the amazing diversity of appearance, taste, and potential benefits such as disease resistance and nutritional content.

The effect of the proposal is to introduce a costly licensing system that only the corporations will be able to afford. Now there’s a surprise! From Brazil to Washington and on to Brussels, corporate power has effectively terminated what remains of the democratic process.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
13 December 2013

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