"Terminator" seeds threaten a barren future for farmers
By Wayne Brittenden
THE ancient right of farmers to save their seed and breed
their plants may soon
become a thing of the past. "Terminator" seeds, deliberately disabled from
germinating when replanted, are threatening a farming practice as old as
agriculture itself. Three weeks ago one of the most far-reaching patents ever
granted went to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Delta and Pine, an
American seed company. They have developed a genetic technique that can prevent
the seed from germinating when replanted. The new development could force
farmers back into the seed shop for a fresh supply every year, and the company
has the exclusive right to issue or deny licences.
So far the technique has only worked on cotton and tobacco
scientists believe that within a few years crucial crops like wheat, rice and
soya beans - staples for three-quarters of the world's poor - may also be under
the control of international agribusiness. Second and Third World countries
are those most likely to be targeted and it is estimated that up to 1.4 billion
farming families worldwide will be at risk.
At the same time governments are expected to come under
intense pressure to
adopt the new technique and perhaps even outlaw farmer-to-farmer exchange.
University research departments short of money will be among the beneficiaries
of the ensuing corporate dollars. Existing seed banks carefully developed by
farmers may also become vulnerable.
Some scientists predict the development of a virus that
could disable all
non-terminator seeds. "This is perfectly possible," said Dr Owain
Williams, of the Gaia Foundation, which works with indigenous peoples
around the world. "Already bacteria have been developed for fixing nitrogen
into corn roots, so why not a killer bacteria?" Agribusiness companies
insist that the new technique means an incentive to invest in the world's
most important food crops, and will benefit poor populations with
desperately needed research. While admitting that seed prices will rise,
the corporations argue that farmers will be free to choose the terminator
seeds or publicly bred varieties.