Terminator technology: To some, the sterile seed of our destruction

May 07, 1999

GETTYSBURG, Pa. - Seeds aren't as immediate as air, but in the long run they're just as vital to sustaining life. Grain and vegetable seeds are bought and sold, but they're also something of a birthright, as much as the soil and sun and water that team up to create the world's supply of food.

So is it worrisome that the global supply of seeds is falling into the hands of a few big chemical companies? Hope Shand, along with a growing cadre of scientists, farmers and citizens believes that it is.

Shand, who is working out of Gettysburg College this spring as research director for the Rural Advancement Foundation International, is spreading the word about what RAFI calls terminator technology, or the plan of chemical companies to genetically engineer seeds so their crops won't reproduce.

Monsanto has developed a technology along with, incredibly, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that would end farmers' ability to save seeds from, say, their 1999 crop for planting in the year 2000. Monsanto's soybean seeds will grow a good crop of soybeans - soybeans that resemble regular soybeans in every way except that they are sterile and will not germinate if planted.


Monsanto's not entirely invalid point is this: It sunk lots of money into developing new, vibrant strains of crops such as soybeans, cotton and wheat. Since they "invented" these strains, farmers should have to pay for them each time they plant. If a farmer saves soybeans out of his crop for replanting he's theoretically benefiting from Monsanto's research and development for free.

Already, Monsanto makes farmers sign agreements not to save seeds and maintains controversial 800 numbers so people can rat out farmers who do. "It's a ruthless campaign to intimidate seed-savers," Shand said.

Of course genetically sterilizing the crops would end the need for these practices.

The question at this stage is when a seed stops being a seed and starts being "intellectual property." After all, it wasn't even possible to patent a seed until 1985. But that may be the easiest of the questions.

Genetically improved seeds increase yields, and probably pay off in the end for big agribusiness farms here in America, even if they have to pay for fresh seed each year. But most of the world still counts on saved seed to grow its food supply. As the chemical companies tighten the noose on the world's seed supply (applications for terminator technology are pending in 87 countries) small farmers' ability to afford seed for food would be threatened.

Already, 10 big companies control a third of the global seed supply. And if, at this point, you are asking what chemical companies are doing in the food business you're getting warm.

Chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides are the crux of the matter. It's doubtful the genetic puppeteers would stop at sterilization. Conceivably Monsanto could produce a plant that would die without Monsanto brand fertilizers or invite insects without Monsanto brand pesticides or be killed by any herbicide other than Monsanto brand herbicide (Already Monsanto is engineering plants tolerant of Roundup, its chief weed killer).

It's Microsoft all over again. And while it's one thing to jigger computer chips for profit it's quite another to alter the world's food supply so people can't eat without giving the chemical companies a financial take. And the questions go on: What if a plant with terminator technology cross-pollinates with a regular plant. Will that plant's seeds be rendered sterile? Are genetically altered seeds safe to eat?

Clearly if you wish to use the chemical industries' seeds and benefit from their abundant yields it should be your right. But it should also be your right to obtain seeds that are not genetically sterilized so that you can replant them in following years.

That right will be lost if a few large companies control and sterilize all the world's seeds. At the very least, the U.S. government should not be scientifically and financially supporting Monsanto and other companies as they move in this direction.

Shand's files include a letter addressed to USDA secretary Dan Glickman from a woman in Camden, Me., who wrote:

In grade school I had to memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address. As I read USDA's words justifying its role in terminator technology, other words reverberated: "...those who here gave their lives...that government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth." I wondered if those who gave their lives, many of them farmers, would have died for a government that denied them the right to save seeds for future harvests. When seeds do what you programmed them to do, perish from the earth, government for the people perishes too.

It's coincidence, although a fitting coincidence, that Shand's office overlooks the low hills where those Gettysburg soldiers mustered nearly a century-and-a-half ago. Hers too is a crucial battle, not just for the people of the nation, but the people of the world.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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