Terminator Seeds:
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.


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 every year.

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 annum.

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 [patented seed]."

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 lost forever.


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 technologies.

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 credit.

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 bioengineered seeds.

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 researchers.

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.


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 crop.

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 plants sterile.

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 certain purposes."

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 substituted.

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 "very slim."


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 story.


Hope Shand is research director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International.

Transnational Corporations & the Third World