Thursday, 30 March 2000

The case of the suicide seeds:

'Terminator technology'
not terminated

By Gina Mission

Renato Quilla, a farmer from Calinan, Davao City, felt so relieved when he heard of Monsanto Corporation's announcement in October last year that it would not commercialize or continue developing stop its "Terminator" farming technology. Finally, he thought, he could go to sleep without worrying that he’d wake up the next day having to consider becoming a pirate of his own crops.

....But Quilla’s relief was short-lived. In what anti-biotechnology activists and concerned Filipino groups consider a deception, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Delta & Pine Land (D&PL), the world's largest cotton seed company (owned by Monsanto), jointly acquired two new patents on the controversial farming technology on Nov. 2, 1999, one month after Monsanto had promised not to commercialize Terminator seeds.

....Terminator technology, or the genetic engineering of plants that renders their seeds sterile, was first heard of in 1998. The technology prevents farmers like Quilla from saving seeds from their harvest to be used for the next cropping period. The patent would prevent "unauthorized seed saving" by farmers. Critics call the seeds produced through this technology as "suicide seeds" because they can be used for only one planting season. After that, farmers have to buy new seeds from authorized growers for the next season.

....Understandably, the new technology has triggered an uproar in the farming sector. Since time immemorial, farmers throughout the world having been saving seeds from their latest harvest for the next crop season. Even with the development of new varieties in recent decades, farmers buy seeds of high-yielding varieties only once and then save seeds from their crops for the next season. That way, they don’t have to buy new seeds come replanting time.

....With the Terminator technology, however, farmers would be forced to buy seeds every season, since the seeds from their previous harvest won't grow. Its developers claim that the technology will "encourage investments in plant breeding" and "serve as a boon to food production" because seed companies will have an incentive to invest in crops that "have long been ignored by the commercial industry."

Death of a farming tradition

....That’s hogwash, its critics say. The technology, they say, will terminate the 12,000-year-old tradition of farmers to save and breed their own plant varieties. It will also create a new era of "bioserfdom" by rendering farmers totally dependent on corporate-grown seeds, which they have to buy every planting season.

....The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), an international civil society organization based in Canada, says the Terminator technology is universally considered the most morally offensive application of agricultural biotechnology because it will affect more than 1.4 billion people who depend on farm-saved seeds.

....Obviously because of the undesirable consequences, even the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, the world’s largest international agricultural research network that includes the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños, has banned the technology from its crop-breeding program.

....Quilla’s stand is simple and forthright: "Why should anybody control what I do with my harvest? It’s mine. I didn’t steal it from any company."

....According to a RAFI report, the new patents on terminator technology were issued barely a month after Monsanto announced, in October 1999, that it would not market the Terminator technology.

....RAFI learned of these patents only this March. The new patents, which were assigned US Patent Nos. 5,925,808 and 5,977,441, according to RAFI, share the same titles, inventors and abstracts as the earlier patent (US Patent No. 5,723,765). In addition, they also describe "innovations" and demonstrate for USDA scientists how to continue refining the technology and advancing the research.

Manipulating information

....Reacting to the RAFI disclosure, Emmanuel Yap, executive director of Masipag, says: "This just shows the real interests at play in genetic engineering, how these companies are just managing information to get what they really want." Masipag is a Laguna-based partnership of farmers and scientists who develop their own seed varieties for non-profit distribution to rural farmers.

....Also in a critical vein, Neth Daño, executive director of the Manila-based Southeast Asian Regional Institute for Community Education (Searice), says, "This technology goes far beyond intellectual property. A patent expires after 20 years, but if Terminator seeds are commercialized it will give a handful of multinational Gene Giants a monopoly with no expiration date. This technology aims to eliminate the right of farmers to save seeds and do local plant breeding, and it will destroy the concept of national seed sovereignty."

....Under a provision in the Philippine patent law that Monsanto invokes, it would be illegal for farmers to save or re-use patented seeds. Monsanto, which is already in the Philippines, requires that its customers sign a licensing agreement strictly prohibiting farmers from saving the company’s patented, transgenic (meaning, genetically engineered) seed.

....The RAFI report says the patent has a broad coverage, applying not just to rice or corn but to plants and seeds of all species, including both transgenic and conventionally bred seeds.

....Groups opposed to the technology have expressed concern about the inevitability of the technology being distributed globally, under the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) agreement on Trade-Related Aspect of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The TRIPS agreement requires its ratification this year by the legislature of WTO member countries like the Philippines, after which they must enact legislation on intellectual property rights to plant varieties.

....Once ratified, the TRIPS agreement will allow transnational corporations and scientists to obtain exclusive legal rights even over seeds that local farmers are currently using, without any recognition of the latter’s rights. If this happens, Daño warns, the Terminator technology will not only prevent Filipino farmers from saving seeds from their own harvests, but will also make them "pirates" in their own farms.

....After Monsanto made a public commitment not to commercialize Terminator seeds in October 1999, a move followed by AstraZeneca , a US-based agrochemical company which had developed a similar technology, some governments and civil society organizations were lulled into believing that "suicide seeds"--seeds good for only one cropping--were "history" and that the crisis had passed.

...."We thought we were winning," Yap recalls.

....Indeed, Monsanto's decision to back away from Terminator technology was considered a feat for groups like Masipag, RAFI and Searice, which had raised howls of protest. "It's not every day that a major multinational enterprise caves in to public opposition and 'rejects' a new technology," Yap says.

....In a communiqué, RAFI had described Monsanto’s decision as a smart move. "Over the past year, Monsanto, the world's most visible and notorious corporate crusader for genetically engineered seeds, has been battered and bruised by the anti-biotech backlash. Pulling the plug on Terminator was a desperate attempt by Monsanto to distance itself from what is universally considered the most morally offensive application of biotechnology (so far) on plants that are engineered to produce sterile seeds."

....But the jubilation, like Quilla's feeling of relief, was short-lived.

New cause for concern

....A March 24 RAFI report says what really happened was that since the October 1999 announcement, Monsanto and AstraZeneca had each merged with other companies. Since only the old Monsanto and AstraZeneca made public commitments to stop commercializing or developing the Terminator technology, the new companies were not bound by those pledges.

....On Dec. 2, 1999, AstraZeneca and Novartis announced they would merge their agrochemical and seed divisions to create the world's biggest agribusiness corporation to be named "Syngenta."

....For its part, Monsanto, on Dec.19, 1999, announced it would merge with drug industry giant Pharmacia & Upjohn to create a new company, named Pharmacia, with combined annual sales of $17 billion. The merged company would spin off its agricultural chemical and besieged biotech business, which would keep the name Monsanto and would have headquarters in St. Louis (USA). The agricultural biotech business will be at least 80 per cent owned by the parent corporation, Pharmacia.

....The terminator technology has not really been terminated. The RAFI report quoted Harry Collins, vice president of D&PL, as saying in January: "We've continued right on with work on the Technology Protection System [Terminator]. We never really slowed down. We're on target, moving ahead to commercialize it. We never really backed off."

....The RAFI report says D&PL is "moving aggressively to commercialize Terminator. And despite massive protests, the US Department of Agriculture supports and defends its anti-farmer patent and research on suicide seeds."

....It asserts that corporate commitments to disavow Terminator are "virtually meaningless in light of the pace of corporate takeovers (and mergers)."

....Last year, RAFI recalls, AstraZeneca conducted field trials on the technology in the UK. "We feel duped and betrayed," says Gary Goldberg, CEO of the American Corn Growers Association, in a statement. "We demand to know why the USDA continues to invest taxpayer dollars in anti-farmer research that, if commercialized, will hold farmers hostage to giant agribusiness corporations."

....Yap is not too surprised. "We were really cynical about Monsanto’s earlier statement," he says."You have to understand the real politics of biotechnology. It is just a vehicle for more profit for the companies involved in the business."

....He adds that the RAFI report underscores the real motives of Monsanto’s October announcement. That is why, he says, "we have to continue to be vigilant about what they are doing, and to really analyze the motives behind their every move."