First there was Terminator. Now there is Exorcist and Zombie. And farmers should certainly be afraid. Very afraid.
For these are not just some Hollywood horror movies. They are the nicknames given to the new genetic seed technologies being developed by industries and governments which threaten to deprive farmers in developing countries of their traditional rights to harvest the seeds from the plants they grow.
The development, patenting and potential use of such technologies is just one sign of the mushrooming influence of multinational corporations on the global seed business. The relentless drive for more profits from plants, critics say, is endangering the natural diversity of crops on which humanity has depended for centuries.
Along with the horror movie seeds, the world’s big agricultural companies are increasingly being accused of a new crime: biopiracy. The rich, it is argued, are plundering the genetic plant resources of the poor.
Just four big companies control half of the world’s commercial seed market: Monsanto and Dupont in the US, Syngenta in Switzerland and Limagrain in France. By far the biggest is the agribusiness giant from St. Louis, Missouri, Monsanto, with seeds sales in 2006 approaching US$2.5 billion and a massive 20% share of of the world market (see table below).
Monsanto was originally interested in Terminator, a technology developed by the seed industry and the US Department of Agriculture in the 1990s. The idea was to genetically modify seeds so that the seeds they produced when they grew were sterile. In biotechnology jargon, this is known as a “genetic use restriction technology”, or GURT.
Companies were keen on such “suicide seeds” because they would enable them to control any proprietary genetic traits they had engineered into the seeds. So resistance to a particular herbicide, for example, or an ability to grow faster, would not be passed on from one generation of plants to the next.
Farmers, however, were outraged because Terminator technology would effectively end the centuries-old tradition of collecting seeds at each harvest so they could be replanted next year. As many as 1.4 billion people in the developing world depend on farm-saved seed.
Opposition to Terminator was widespread, involving farmers’ groups, civil society, indigenous peoples and eventually governments. After years of bad publicity, first Monsanto, then Syngenta (at the time AstraZeneca), pledged in 1999 not to commercialise the technology.
In 2000 governments involved in the United Nations (UN) Convention on Biological Diversity recommended a moratorium on the field-testing and commercialisation of Terminator. Despite a strong lobby from industry to overturn the moratorium, the convention stuck to its guns and strengthened their position in March 2006.
But the biotechnology industry has not given up the idea, it has just altered its design. "The technology is simply too lucrative for the seed industry to abandon," warns Hope Shand, the research director of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) in North Carolina, US, the leading international group that campaigns on the issue.
One new method being explored has been called Exorcist by the ETC Group. This involves snipping out, or excising, genes at different stages in a plant’s life in order to restrict access to potentially valuable genetic traits. At least seven patent applications have been filed by companies and research organisations since 2000 on various forms of gene excision technology.
The industry argues that the technique could help prevent the spread of genetically modified organisms to wild plants, though this is disputed by some experts. Genes could be excised automatically before plants flower or before they grow into food. Or the process could be designed to be triggered by an external environmental or chemical stimulus.
As well as Exorcist, companies are also investigating another technology, this time dubbed Zombie. This involves the development of genetic “switches” to control a plant’s fertility. In the jargon it is known as “reversible transgenic sterility”, and it has been the subject of at least five patent applications since 2000.
The technology is being developed by scientists at the University of Milan in Italy as part of a three year, US$6.8 million “Transcontainer Project” backed by the European Union. The ostensible reason for the project is again to prevent the inadvertent spread of genetically modified organisms, but like Exorcist and Terminator, it could also stop farmers from saving seeds.
The plan is to insert switches in sterile plants, enabling fertility to be turned on when they are exposed to a particular chemical, which will presumably be a proprietary brand marketed by a multinational. Sterility is likely to be the default condition, making producers dependent on companies for keeping plants fertile.
“It's outrageous that the European Union is using public funds to develop genetic seed sterilisation,” says Shand, a long-time expert and campaigner against Terminator technology. “A scenario in which farmers would have to pay for a chemical to restore seed viability creates a new perpetual monopoly for the seed industry.”
Shand links the argument over Terminator technologies with wider criticisms of the ways in which agribusiness is exercising its increasingly powerful influence. “The top 10 seed companies control 57% of the commercial seed market worldwide. That's a staggering level of corporate control over the first link in the food chain,” she says.
“Whoever controls our seeds, controls the food supply. These companies are trying to reduce competition and maximise profits by promoting laws and technologies that eliminate the practice of farmer-saved seeds. Whether it's promoting genetic seed sterilisation and patent laws, or dictating trade regimes, these trends threaten traditional farming communities and erode crop diversity.”
The natural genetic diversity of crops is a vital insurance against future farming catastrophes. The world needs to retain as many different varieties of potato, tomato, rice and wheat as possible in case the commercial varieties grown in bulk get diseased, or are rendered useless by the accelerating impacts of global warming. That’s why there are some 1,400 “seed banks” around the world, storing some six million different species.
Though most experts agree that the natural diversity of plants is under threat, not everyone accepts that big corporations, and their predilection for Terminator-like technologies is to blame. “Patenting and corporate control pose a hindrance to the availability in developing countries of new seed technologies, but are not necessarily a threat to biodiversity,” argues Nathan Russell, from the UN Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in Washington DC, US.
“The big drivers behind the destruction of biodiversity in agriculture are deforestation, agricultural modernisation, conversion of agricultural land for urban uses and, now, climate change,” he says.
The multinationals themselves do not accept the arguments either. Monsanto insists it is committed to investing in products that can “make a difference” for farmers. “Monsanto researchers use the tools of plant breeding and biotechnology to support its commitment to agriculture and the farmers that feed, clothe and fuel our growing world,” the company says.
But this hasn’t prevented the biotechnology industry and some governments from being labelled as biopirates, for the genes that they allegedly steal from indigenous communities around the world. Serious controversy erupted in Australia about this issue in the late 1990s, after government research agencies tried to patent two types of chick pea grown by subsistence farmers in India and Iran.
The varieties grew grew stronger and taller than those grown commercially, so the aim was to market them in Asia and the Middle East. "It's blatant biopiracy," said Farhad Mazhar, from the South Asian Network on Food, Ecology and Culture, at the time. "Australia is privatising seeds that belong to our farmers and planning to sell them back to us."
Such was the outcry that the patent applications were withdrawn, and the international regime meant to prevent biopiracy was overhauled. But the problem has not gone away: far from it, biopiracy, some say, is burgeoning.
Recent reports have cited a series of cases in which the agricultural or medical benefits of genetic material found in developing countries are being exploited by companies. They include the hoodla cactus from the Kalahari Desert in Africa, the enola bean from Mexico, turmeric from India, quinoa from Bolivia and Brazzein berries from Gabon.
The ETC Group has even launched a ‘Captain Hook’ award for the most blatant examples of biopiracy. Amongst the winners in 2006 in the ‘worst threat to food sovereignty’ category was Syngenta “for its Terminator-like patent designed to prevent potatoes from sprouting” and its “patent applications on thousands of gene sequences vital for rice breeding”.
The US government won the award for the “most shameful act of biopiracy” for imposing a law on war-torn Iraq in June 2004 making it illegal for farmers to reuse registered seeds. Australia, New Zealand and Canada were jointly given the “access of evil award” for repeatedly trying to undermine the moratorium on terminator technology at the Convention on Biological Diversity.
It is the crucial meeting of the convention in Bonn in May 2008 that will see the next round of the battle against biopiracy and Terminator technology being fought. Companies and some governments will doubtless be trying to get the moratorium lifted, while campaigners will be pressing for it to be transformed into a permanent ban. The stakes are high, and there is no telling who will win.
The World’s Top Ten Seed Companies company / country / 2006 seed sales (US $ millions)
1. Monsanto and Delta & Pine Land / US / $4,476m
2. Dupont / US / $2,781m
3. Syngenta / Switzerland / $1,743m
4. Limagrain / France / $1,035m
5. Land O’ Lakes / US / $756m
6. KWS AG / Germany / $615m
7. Bayer Crop Science / Germany / $430m
8. Takii / Japan / $425m
9. Sakata / Japan / $401m
10. DLF-Trifolium / Denmark / $352m
Source: ETC Group