ecoglobe [yinyang] news (21 November 1999)

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U.S. Government trying to market 'terminator' seeds

WASHINGTON - AP World News via NewsEdge Corporation:
Missouri farmer Bill Christison cuts $20,000 off the annual cost of growing soybeans by saving seed from one year's crop so he can plant it the following spring.

So he does not like the idea that seed companies could stop him from doing that by genetically engineering seeds so they cannot reproduce. Worse, to Christison, the federal government invented a "terminator" process for rendering seeds sterile and now actively is trying to get it to market.

"Our hope is that the U.S. government will wake up and look at what they are facilitating here," Christison said.

Agriculture Department researchers say the terminator process is misunderstood and has applications that could benefit farmers all over the world. The same technique that renders seeds sterile - by turning certain genetic traits on and off - also could be used to make plants resistant to drought or pests, for example.

But opponents of genetic engineering in the United States and especially in Europe have made the terminator issue into a symbol of what they see as the evils of biotechnology. To them it is immoral for the U.S. government to promote and profit from such an invention, even if private companies are developing terminator processes of their own.

The department developed the terminator technology at a laboratory in Texas and secured a joint patent last year with Scott, Mississippi-based Delta and Pine Land Co., the world's largest cotton seed company, which co-sponsored the research.

The process is officially known as the "technology protection system." The terminator nickname is a reference to the on-screen robotic killer played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Monsanto Co., which is seeking Justice Department approval to acquire Delta and Pine Land, recently announced it would not use terminator technology.

But the government is continuing research and is close to finishing negotiations on a marketing license with Delta and Pine Land for commercializing the technology, Agriculture Department officials say.

If Monsanto refuses to use the technology, the department would have the right to find another company that would. Officials will not say what they will do.

"First we have to see if Monsanto's purchase goes through. It's too hypothetical to be talking about," said department spokesman Andy Solomon.

The department has no plans to relinquish the patent, he said.

"As co-holders of the patent we are in the room and in discussions with D and PL about whether or if or how there would be any commercialization. We think it's important that we be there to represent the public interest," Solomon said.

One critic of genetic engineering, Hope Shand, research director of Rural Advancement Foundation International, said: "The specter of genetic seed sterilization is particularly alarming given the rapid rate of consolidation of the global seed industry. Seed is the first link in the food chain. Whoever controls the seed has a stranglehold on the food supply."

The department's terminator research "is a misallocation of precious ... research dollars and will benefit only a handful of big corporations," said Adam Goldberg, a spokesman for Consumers Union.

In developing countries, it is common for farmers to save seed from year to year. Christison, who is president of the National Family Farm Coalition, estimates that 25 percent of U.S. producers do it.

Genetically engineered crops, which are making up an increasing share of U.S. production, cannot be reproduced legally. Farmers also buy new seeds each year for corn and hybrid versions of other crops because they lose their special characteristics after the first generation.

In the United States, an estimated 57 percent of the soybeans, 38 percent of the cotton and 30 percent of the corn planted this year was genetically engineered, either to resist pests or herbicides.

The department believes seed companies must be allowed to protect their investment in new varieties of seeds if they are to continue developing new crops that are hardier, more nutritious and require fewer applications of pesticides.

Moreover, the terminator process is still several years away from being commercially available, said Sandy Miller Hayes, a spokeswoman for department's Agricultural Research Service.

To date, it has been shown to work only in tobacco, which is used as a model plant species in agricultural research, and in cotton. The first applications likely would be in cotton.

It only would be used in crops that do not cross-pollinate, such as cotton, soybeans and wheat, she said. In cross-pollinating plants like corn, fields of non-terminator varieties could be made sterile.

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