Monsanto Moves to Tighten Its Grip
on GIobal Agriculture
by Hope Shand
Multinational Monitor magazine, November 1998
Biotechnology giant Monsanto stands on the brink of engineering
a massive transformation of worldwide agricultural practices through
introduction of suicide seeds-genetically engineered seeds that
beget sterile progeny.
The owners of the patent for genetic seed sterilization refer
to it as a "technology protection system," but critics
have dubbed it "the Terminator." Advocates say it will
spur investment in plant breeding worldwide, critics tear it will
bring ruin to resource-poor farmers, destroy biodiversity and
dangerously consolidate corporate control over plant genetic resources.
It could be years before Terminator seeds are commercially
available, but the specter of genetic seed sterilization is so
serious that the world's largest network of agricultural researchers
recently adopted a policy prohibiting the use of the technology
in its Third World plant breeding programs. India's agriculture
minister says he will ban the import of Terminator seeds because
of the potential harm to Indian agriculture. The topic of genetic
seed sterilization, and its consequences for farmers and the environment,
is on the 1999 agenda of two UN agencies.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Mississippi-based
Delta & Pine Land Company-recently acquired by Monsanto-jointly
hold the Terminator patent. Monsanto is currently negotiating
with USDA for an exclusive license on the Terminator technology.
According to both USDA and Delta & Pine Land, the Terminator
technology is aimed primarily at seed markets in Asia, Africa
and Latin America. Murray Robinson, president of Delta & Pine
Land, told a U.S. seed trade journal that his company's seed sterilizing
technology could be used on over 405 million hectares worldwide
(an area the size of South Asia), and that it could eventually
generate revenues for his company in excess of $1 billion a year.
Robinson says that the newly patented technique will provide seed
companies with a "safe avenue" for introducing their
new proprietary technologies into giant, untapped seed markets
such as China, India and Pakistan.
THE CORPORATE CASE FOR STERILITY
USDA and Delta & Pine Land received U.S. patent no. 5,723,765
this past March on a technique that genetically alters seed so
that it will not germinate if re-planted the following season.
The technology aims to prevent farmers from saving seed from their
harvest, thus forcing them to return to the commercial seed market
In May, Monsanto announced that it would acquire Delta &
Pine Land (and its Terminator patent) for $1.9 billion. After
a two-year buying binge, Monsanto is now the world's second largest
seed company, with estimated seed revenues of $1.3 billion per
The Terminator patent covers plants and seeds of all species,
including both transgenic (genetically engineered) and conventionally
bred seeds. The developers of the new technology say that their
technique to prohibit seed saving is still in the product development
stage and will not be available commercially until 2004.
The patented technique involves a cascade of complex interactions
involving two bacterial genes and one plant gene. Before sale,
seeds are soaked in a common antibiotic, tetracycline, a chemical
process that activates a molecular switch in one of the bacterial
genes. The introduced plant gene is not activated until after
the farmer produces a crop and the seed is almost finished maturing.
The gene then produces a toxic protein that kills the seed embryo
in late stages of development.
Terminator technology portends a shift of control to seed
companies far beyond that transferred with the development of
hybrid seed technology earlier in this century. Farmers do not
save hybrid seed because the seed does not "breed true"
-it won't perform as well when saved and replanted.
But plant breeders have never successfully hybridized many
of the world's most important crops - including wheat, rice, soybeans
and cotton. In theory, at least, the Terminator technology will
give the seed industry the ability to "genetically neuter"
all of the world's crops, creating greater dependency on proprietary
seeds and their companion chemicals.
And whereas hybrid seeds deliver the benefit of hybrid vigor
and increased yields, Terminator seeds offer no agronomic benefits
to farmers. They are simply designed to ensure seed industry profits.
Without a technology protection system to prevent unauthorized
seed-saving, seed companies argue that they cannot earn a fair
return on their investment. Around three-quarters of the world's
farmers routinely save seed from their harvest for re-planting.
If farmers save commercial seed, the company loses repeat business
Melvin J. Oliver, a USDA molecular biologist and the primary
inventor of the technology, likens seed-saving to theft of intellectual
property. "My main interest is the protection of American
technology," he says. "Our mission is to protect U.S.
agriculture, and to make us competitive in the face of foreign
competition. Without this, there is no way of protecting the technology
But seeds aren't just another patented technology, they are
the foundation of global food security. Farmers have been saving
seed from their harvest for 12,000 years. According to the UN,
more than 1.4 billion people, mainly resource-poor farmers, depend
on farm-saved seed and seeds exchanged with their neighbors as
their primary seed source.
When farmers "save" seed, they are doing much more
than storing it for the next season. They also select seeds. In
essence, farmers are plant breeders who adapt their crops to specific
farming conditions and needs. Since most of the world's poor farmers
live in marginal farm environments (e.g., poor soils, little rainfall)
and have little money to buy commercial seeds, fertilizers and
pesticides, they depend on plants that survive and produce under
adverse conditions year after year. In the process, resource-poor
farmers serve as stewards of genetic diversity.
Poor farmers in the tropics and sub-tropics not only produce
15 to 20 percent of the world's food supply, they also maintain
diverse crop varieties that are a source of genetic diversity
for the world's plant breeders and genetic engineers. If farmers
lose the right to save seed, they lose the ability to select seed
and adapt crops to their unique farming conditions. If farmers
eat or abandon their traditional seeds in the process of adopting
Terminator seeds, centuries of crop genetic diversity could be
Proponents of the Terminator 1 technology are quick to point
out that farmers will not buy seed that does not bring them benefits.
Farmers make rational choices, they argue, and no one will force
them to use Terminator seeds. Terminator seeds will benefit the
poor, advocates argue, by giving seed companies an incentive to
invest in crops that they have long ignored.
"Protection systems will not limit the number of choices
for the farmer," says Harry Collins, vice president of technology
transfer for Delta & Pine Land. "On the contrary, these
systems will help farmers in all areas of the world gain access
to the most technologically advanced tools and products available
to produce more profitable crops."
Collins also argues that traditional farming practices put
resource-poor farmers at a disadvantage: "The centuries-old
practice of farmer-saved seed is really a gross disadvantage to
Third World farmers who inadvertently become locked into obsolete
varieties because of their taking the 'easy road' and not planting
newer, more productive varieties."
Critics of the Terminator technology disagree. "Those
who argue that farmers can always say 'no' to Terminator seeds
are completely out-of-touch with the economic reality of poor
farmers," says Pat Mooney, executive director of the
Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a Canadian-based
organization that has spearheaded the anti-Terminator campaign.
"A defining feature of poverty is the lack of choice,"
says Mooney, who explains that government and aid programs often
coerce poor farmers' seed and other production choices and decisions.
Market institutions often exert a decisive effect on poor farmers'
decisions, as well. Landowners, commercial creditors and those
determining access to water irrigation frequently demand or condition
benefits on farmer acceptance of specified farming practices and
The combined coercive effect of government and creditor demands
frequently obliterates any notion of farmer choice. Some years
ago in Zimbabwe, for example, the government decreed that subsistence
maize farmers had to abandon their open-pollinated varieties and
adopt maize hybrids. The Indonesian government has insisted that
the major rice growing regions of that country can only plant
high-yielding varieties from the International Rice Research Institute
or its national counterparts. In the Philippines, credit schemes
and extension pressure has forced many farming communities to
surrender their traditional seeds in favor of government-certified
varieties. credit and extension programs in Chile have sometimes
implicitly obliged poor farmers to accept plant varieties they
did not want. In Brazil, farmers in some areas must select from
a government-maintained list of varieties in order to obtain commercial
Moreover, market alternatives for farmers are rapidly shrinking
as a few corporations-led by Monsanto itself- take control of
the global seed industry and as public sector plant breeding declines.
Today, the top 10 seed corporations control 30 percent of the
$23 billion seed market worldwide. Monsanto-the new private owner
of the Terminator technology-has in the last few years itself
become one of the world's largest seed companies, and is therefore
in position to make direct use of the Terminator technology across
the globe. In 1998 alone, Monsanto swallowed two of the world's
top 10 seed companies (Dekalb Genetics and Cargill's international
seed division). Of the estimated 26 million hectares of genetically
engineered crops grown worldwide in 1998, approximately 80 percent
of the total (20 million hectares) will be planted in Monsanto's
Monsanto's Third World market share is growing quickly. In
Argentina, Monsanto already controls over half of the maize seed
market, and Monsanto seeds are expected to cover 70 percent of
Argentina's soybean fields in 1998/99. Monsanto officials confidently
predict that the company will control 50 percent of the Brazilian
soybean seed market within three years.
Even the world's remaining public plant breeders may be compromised
by the Terminator technology, as cash-starved institutes are persuaded
to adopt the Terminator technique in order to prevent "unauthorized"
seed saving and to recoup their research investment. Most developing
nations rely on public plant breeders instead of commercial seed
enterprises. These public institutions include government breeding
programs, public universities or internationally sponsored agricultural
Resource-poor farmers typically experiment with plant breeding
by exchanging or buying small quantities of commercial seed from
better-off neighbors. While poor farmers are not likely to buy
Terminator seed if it becomes commercially available, they may
end up with sterile seed after exchanging or buying seed from
better-off farm neighbors.
"Public breeders wanting access to patented genes and
traits will be forced to adopt the Terminator as a licensing requirement,"
says Neth Dano of the Philippines-based Southeast Asian Institute
for Community Education (SEARICE). "The better-off farmers
in the valleys will be forced to pay. Their poor neighbors on
the hillsides will no longer be able to able to exchange breeding
material with their counterparts in the valleys. Far from improving
plant breeding, the Terminator could drive millions of farmers
out of plant breeding and, since no one else will breed for their
needs, out of agriculture altogether."
Thus although poor farmers are generally not likely to be
able to afford Terminator seeds-and thus will not accrue any of
the benefits from hypothetical Terminator-inspired investments
in new crops-these poor farmers are likely to be exposed to Terminator
seeds. The threat to food security is very real, because the Terminator
seeds will undermine the ability of poorer farmers to do plant
breeding-to adapt their crops to their own needs.
TERMINATING HEALTHY ECOSYSTEMS?
Opinions vary widely on the potential ecological risks associated
with genetically engineered Terminator seeds. USDA's "Fact
Sheet" on Terminator asserts that "there appear to be
no crop or food safety risks" associated with the new technology.
Monsanto claims that genetic seed sterilization will actually
enhance the environmental safety of genetically engineered crops
because it offers a new tool for controlling the unintended "escape"
of genes from transgenic crops to wild relatives planted nearby.
Monsanto argues that if genes from a bioengineered crop escape
into the wild-a major concern of biotech critics, who fear genetically
altered seeds could "contaminate" neighboring crops-the
seed produced from unwanted pollination will not germinate, so
long as the Terminator technology is implanted in the transgenic
But critics like Martha Crouch, a molecular biologist at the
University of Indiana, say it "is unrealistic" to depend
on Terminator to prevent genetically engineered organisms or their
traits from spreading. Worse, she concludes that, under certain
conditions, the sterility trait from Terminator crops will spread
via pollen to surrounding plants, and it will make seeds of those
This could become a serious problem for farmers whose fields
are close to the Terminator crop. "If many seeds die, it
will make saving seed untenable for the adjacent farmer,"
Crouch writes. "Even if only a few seeds die, they will contain
the toxin and any other proteins engineered into the Terminator-protected
variety. These new 'components' may make the seed unusable for
Others questions the technology's safety. "Without a
substantial amount of food safety and ecological testing, which
to my knowledge has not been done, it is impossible to conclude
that crops containing the Terminator genes are safe for human
consumption and the environment," says Jane Rissler of the
Union of Concerned Scientists.
Critics raise a series of other questions. Will dead seeds
have the same properties as living seeds? Will the Terminator
gene mutate and change characteristics in some dangerous way?
Will seeds containing the toxin made by the Terminator be safe
to eat? Will the massive quantity of antibiotics that is used
to trigger the Terminator gene be harmful to soil organisms, to
wildlife, to human health?
The Terminator developers insist that these concerns are groundless.
Asked if the Terminator seed will be sate to eat, Dr. Mel
Oliver, a molecular biologist at the USDA Agricultural Research
Service and the lead inventor of the Terminator, answers with
a firm "yes." "The last thing we want to do"
is make toxic seed that is harmful to humans, says Oliver. He
says that the Terminator involves natural plant proteins which
humans will digest without any difficulty.
Delta & Pine Land's Dr. Harry Collins says that antibiotics
will not be a problem, first because "massive" amounts
are not required to trigger the Terminator, and secondly because
ultimately a chemical trigger other than tetracycline might be
Collins says that the fear of mutation is misplaced because
the Terminator process involves not a single gene, but is a multi-component
process involving several genes, making the chance of mutation
THE FIGHT FOR CONTROL
Even if USDA surrenders exclusive licensing rights to Monsanto,
the future of the Terminator technology will not be decided in
the United States. "Internationally, public sentiment is
overwhelmingly against Terminator because it's bad for farmers,
global food security and | the environment," explains RAFI's
Pat Mooney. RAFI predicts that scientists, governments and civil
society organizations will continue to seek a ban on Terminator
technology at the national and international level. Under General
Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) rules, countries may reject
patents in order to protect "ordre public"(public morality)
and the environment. Terminator technology is on the agenda at
both the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)
and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 1999.
The Terminator technology crystallizes the intensifying conflict
in agriculture between seed, chemical and biotech companies (represented
by industry leader Monsanto) and popular movements led by farmers
(especially indigenous farmers) and also including environmentalists,
consumers and sustainable development activists.
Where the corporations argue that technology and centralized
control are the key to meeting the growing global demand for food,
the popular organizations counter that food security and ecological
sustainability require a return to decentralized agricultural
models based on biodiversity, common ownership and rights to use
seeds, selective use of modern technologies, and an ecosystem-sensitive
approach that recognizes the ripple effects of introducing new
agricultural inputs and lessening the geographic and marketplace
distance between farmers and consumers.
The fate of the Terminator technology will not decide that
conflict, but it surely will be a critical chapter in the final
Hope Shand is research director of the Rural Advancement Foundation
Corporations & the Third World