ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
2 May 2002


Farm News from Cropchoice
An alternative news service for American farmers

Transforming public research into exclusive rights: Purdue defends Terminator

Also on CropChoice so far this week:
 Brazilian geneticist favors slow approach on genetically modified crops;
 American Corn Growers give farm bill a failing grade;
 Canadian judge adds Monsanto's court costs to ruling against Schmeiser;
 UK scientists find flaws in transgenic corn tests;

by David Dechant

(April 30, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) ­ Itís easy to understand why a private business would want total monopoly control over seed. But itís hard to understand why public research institutions would want the same or why they would even assist business in doing so. By definition, the term "public research" contradicts "exclusive rights." Nonetheless, our public research institutions are very much interested in obtaining exclusive rights, not only for themselves but also for their corporate "partners."

Last weekís Purdue press release, "Terminator Tussle: Controversial Technology Needed, Experts Say,"
illustrates this.
Therein, Purdue University bioethicist Paul Thompson says much of the opposition to plant sterilization technology is misplaced fury. Purdue animal science professor William Muir and biology professor Rick Howard further defend the Terminator, saying that it will be of great benefit in reducing the hazard of uncontrolled spread of genetically modified animals and plants. And, last but not least, Marshall Martin, the associate director of Agricultural Research Programs at Purdue, defends the Terminator by saying that most farmers in the US and other industrialized countries donít save seed.

Something is very much wrong. Even the most vilified biotech/seed company in the business, Monsanto, disavowed the Terminator. The public generally holds its research institutions in high esteem, and it is very sad indeed when they canít even rise a step above the company Indian farmers burned an effigy of when they heard of its plans to commercialize the Terminator.

For Mr. Thompsonís information, Daniel Charles, author of "Lords of the Harvest," credits RAFI, now known as the ETC Group, with giving the Terminator its name. The ETC Group is not anti-biotechnology. It is, however, the seed saving farmersí friend, as it tirelessly fights the monopolization of genetic resources. It is also a good name giver. Could anyone have thought of a more appropriate name for Sterile Seed Technology, a.k.a. Technology Protection System, a.k.a. Control of Plant Gene Expression?

The fury over this technology is not misplaced; it is right on target. This technology that the USDA and Land Grant Universities shamelessly helped create not only terminates an organismís lineal descent, it also terminates farmersí historical and natural rights. It is also a sneaky way of bypassing national and international laws which do not allow seed companies to contractually prohibit seed saving by biologically prohibiting it instead. It also is means of patent extension, as the Terminator wonít expire as patents do.

As for Professor Muirís and Professor Howardís concerns of uncontrolled gene flow and spread of GMOs, arenít there other alternatives of doing the same? Through apomixis, some plants can reproduce seed asexually. One biology Professor who obviously understands he is working for the public, Dr. Stephen L. Goldman at the University of Toledo, works to create apomictic corn. He has been quoted as saying, "It's the challenger to the terminator technology." Perhaps if apomixis can be combined with male sterility, then at least the flow of pollen can be controlled.

Putting transgenes into DNA that is only maternally inherited could be another means of preventing unwanted pollen flow.  In any case, the Terminator is more about taking away farmersí right and ability to save seed than it is about protecting the environment. If not, then why donít its supporters put the means of controlling fertility in farmersí hands?

Terminator promoters donít want to because they desperately want to force an expansion of the seed market, especially abroad where they cannot contractually prohibit farmers from saving seed. Though the US government and the multinational Biotech companies have been trying very hard at the WTO and other international forums to get the rest of the world to take away farmersí rights, they havenít had much luck in doing so.

Even in the European Union, Community law allows farmers to save seed. Consequently, Marshall Martinís comments that most farmers in the US and industrialized countries donít save seed are way off base. Otherwise, Monsanto never would have prosecuted hundreds of farmers in the US and a like number in Canada. Otherwise, the EU never would have included a seed saving provision in its laws. Otherwise, this articleís author, a wheat farmer, wouldnít be writing. Wheat farmers commonly save seed, and so did soybean farmers, at least until the Monsanto Mafia came along.

Purdueís support of the Terminator is a symptom of a much bigger problem: the corporate takeover of our public research institutions. Federal and state governments have abdicated their responsibility to adequately fund our public research institutions by putting the fox in the henhouse. Research institutions now see selling exclusive rights to patents and "partnering" with corporations as a way of getting much needed funds. Industry has not only eliminated the public sector as a competitor; it has appropriated its resources, too.

Of course, seed research takes a lot of money. But when it costs farmers their historical, natural rights, and tears the social fabric of rural America because neighbors are encouraged to rat out seed saving neighbors, then it is too expensive. Meanwhile, farmers look towards their Land Grant Universities as the only thing between them and a total corporate takeover of the seed supply, and it disturbs them to see that their Land Grants are being taken over, too.

Public seed research needs to be directed back into producing seed that farmers can save for crops that consumers demand. Farmers and consumers need to convince legislators to provide more public funding for such research. Perhaps there is one other means of funding: letís put a tax or an assessment on all privately owned patented seed and direct the money towards farmer and consumer friendly public seed research.

The Terminator and closely related Traitor technologies might also put the Worldís food supply at risk. For example, DuPont/Pioneer didnít have enough quality soybean seed to provide its customers for 2001 spring planting. Due to hot, dry weather, a lot of seed grown in 2000 didnít meet quality standards. No problem, Pioneer pulled soybean seed out of farmersí bins, even if it wasnít grown under a seed contract with the purpose of producing seed. As long as farmers could verify that it was all of a given variety and met seed quality standards, Pioneer bought it and bagged it up. (Ironically, farmers couldnít legally plant the very same seed out of their own bins.)

So what would Pioneer have done if farmers had nothing but sterile seed in their bins?

In another case, US corn production fell sharply in 1970 due to Southern Corn Leaf Blight. Most hybrids of the day were produced from a parent line with Texas Male Cytoplasmic Sterility, and hybrids produced from it werenít resistant to the blight. By the time that everyone knew that they needed to plant resistant varieties for the next year, it was already too late to produce enough seed in the US cornbelt. Frantically, seed companies rushed to grow an interim winter crop anywhere they could. Since corn seed grown from hybrids doesnít produce very well, farmers who had corn varieties with resistance couldnít pull seed out of their bins.

Last, is Purdueís real motivation for promoting the Terminator gene that it wants to profit by selling exclusive rights to the patent of its version, patent no. WO9911807? Or do Purdue researchers need to take remedial English, as many incoming freshmen do, to figure out that the word "public" implies inclusivity? Or maybe Purdue wants to please its industry partners?

Again, if Sterile Seed Technology, a.k.a. the notorious Terminator, is absolutely necessary, then put the means of controlling fertility and reproducing productive seed in farmersí hands!

About the author: David Dechant grows corn, wheat and alfalfa in Colorado.

Editor's note:  Readers can find the Purdue article to which David refers in his piece at Terminator tussle: Controversial technology needed, some experts say;

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