Activists See Threat to Food Supply in Form of New 'Terminator Technology.' (Genetic Engineering)

Article excerpt

A new genetic technology that alters plant seeds so they are unable to reproduce will hurt poor farmers and has the potential to exacerbate world hunger, according to activists concerned with the impact of biotechnology and genetic research.

Dubbed the "terminator technology" by critics, the new technique sterilizes the seeds produced by certain agricultural crops. It is designed to prevent farmers from saving seeds from crops that have been genetically enhanced and replanting them, a practice known in the industry as "brown bagging." Seed companies have long opposed the practice since it allows farmers to reap the benefits of seeds that carry genetic advantages created by the company without paying for them.

The company that patented the technology rejects the criticism, arguing that the innovation is the genetic equivalent of copyright protection and will have no impact on the global food supply.

This controversy comes against the backdrop of an explosion in biotechnology, fueled by breakthroughs in genetic research and the development of computing technology that allows scientists to analyze, model and manipulate molecular structures more rapidly, at less expense and in far more complex fashion than ever before.

The Department of Agriculture and the Scott, Miss.,-based Delta and Pine Land Company jointly received a patent on the new technique March 3; Delta and Pine has exclusive licensing rights. In a news release, the company said that "licensing of this technology will be made widely available to other seed companies."

"We view this as very dangerous," said Hope Shand of Rural Advancement Foundation International, an advocacy group based in Canada that often critiques corporate agricultural practices. "It threatens the food-producing ability of over 1 billion people. If it's commercially viable, it will have a profound impact on agriculture."

It is also, Shand said, an assault on traditional farming practices. "This [saving of seeds] is something farmers have been doing for 12,000 years," she said.

Delta and Pine officials told NCR that the technology ensures that the company will be compensated for the value it adds to a crop. "All we want to do is to protect our high-tech material," said Dr. Harry Collins, vice president for technology transfer at the company. "People need to get a return on their investment."

Seeds from agricultural crops are usually harvested as farm products--wheat grain is used for flour, for example, and soybeans are used in various food-processing operations. But farmers have traditionally saved some of the seed to plant the following year, reducing or eliminating the cost of buying seed.

Seed companies that have developed genetically engineered seeds--that have a resistance to a specific herbicide, for example, or that produce a greater yield --view such reuse as a violation of their intellectual property rights. Contracts generally require farmers not to save seed, but in the Third World such provisions are routinely unenforced.

"What's happening is that the seed companies are taking this out of the realm of contract law and into genetics," said Holy Cross Br. David Andrews, head of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in Des Moines, Iowa.

Andrews said the new technique will hurt small farmers and accelerate the trend toward concentration of land and resources in the hands of a few agribusiness giants. "It contributes to a kind of agriculture in which a few companies control everything," he said.

The most dramatic effect of the terminator gene could be in its impact on global hunger. While Delta has announced plans to use the gene to prevent replanting of cotton seed, Shand argues that if it succeeds, seed companies will want to use it for staple crops such as wheat and rice.

To date, Shand said, few companies have bothered developing transgenic varieties of these crops because of the difficulty in preventing reuse, but the terminator gene potentially solves that problem. …