Seeds of Controversy

By Whipple, Dan | The Futurist, October 1999 | Go to article overview
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Seeds of Controversy

Whipple, Dan, The Futurist

Altered soybeans self-destruct to protect patent.

Protection of intellectual property rights usually refers to piracy of software or other electronic media. Few people associate it with the world of agriculture and food production.

But agriculture is rapidly developing its own intellectual property controversies, and a new technology that would protect those rights is being called a threat to food supplies in the underdeveloped world.

Genetically modified plants have become more common in the agriculture industry since the mid-1990s. The technology alters the genetic structure of crops to enhance certain characteristics, such as resistance to herbicides or ravenous insects. A good example of the technology is Roundup Ready soybeans, which were first introduced in 1996. These soybeans are engineered by Monsanto Corporation to contain a bacterial gene that confers tolerance to the weed-killer glyphosate, or Roundup, also made by Monsanto.

"Within two years of the introduction of Roundup Ready soybeans, over 30% of the corn and soybeans planted in the United States, and close to 50% of the canola planted in Canada, had been genetically engineered to be either herbicide or pesticide resistant," according to Martha L. Crouch, associate professor of biology at Indiana University.

These genetically altered plants produce seeds, however. By saving those seeds for planting the following year, farmers can gain the benefit of a multimillion-dollar investment for free.

A joint patent between the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service and Delta and Pine Land Company (D&PL) of Scott, Mississippi, would apply new genetic engineering to crops to prevent them from producing seeds beyond the first generation of plants. Thus farmers would be unable to grow next year's crops from this year's seeds.

The proposal is creating a storm of controversy among hobby gardeners and people concerned about worldwide food supplies. The technology is called "terminator" by critics, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the developer call it "control of plant gene expression" under the rubric of a plant "technology protection system" or TPS.

The creator says that the technology is designed only to protect intellectual property - the large investments made in new genetically engineered crops. D&PL spokesman Harry Collins says he has had no complaints about the system from farmers. But critics say the technology is a ploy to corner world seed markets and require farmers to buy new seeds each year, rather than saving seeds from earlier crops.

Terminator technology is not expected to be commercially available for about five years, according to Collins, who notes that there are no plants currently on the market anywhere in the world with the technology in place.

Much of the concern about terminator technology is based on the proposed acquisition of D&PL by Monsanto, which controls a large portion of the world seed market. The acquisition is currently delayed while it undergoes U.S. Justice Department review for antitrust implications.

Protecting R&D Investment or Monopolizing Seed Supply?

In a 1997 ad in a farm publication, Monsanto said: "It takes millions of dollars and years of research to develop the biotech crops that deliver superior value to growers. And future investment in biotech research depends on companies' ability to share in the added value created by these crops.

"Consider what happens if growers save and replant patented seed. First, there is less incentive for all companies to invest in future technology, such as the development of seeds with traits that produce higher-yielding, higher-value, and drought-tolerant crops.

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