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Marketing the suicide seed

In the second week of February the United Nations convened a meeting in Bangkok that, despite its importance, failed to make newspaper headlines or feature anywhere in news broadcasts. The lack of apparent newsworthiness, however, belies the meeting’s significance, for in time the issue under discussion could well turn out to have profound consequences for the world’s food supply.

At this meeting the Canadian government attempted to overturn the 1998 international moratorium on the commercialisation of ‘sterile gene technology.’  The Canadian delegation, acting on behalf of the multinational seed companies as well as the US government – not a party to the UN Biodiversity Convention – fiercely attacked a UN report which urged governments throughout the world to ban this particularly nasty branch of GM technology. A reversal of the current moratorium would permit the unleashing of what is known as the Terminator seed with devastating consequences to farmers, particularly in the undeveloped world.

So why should this issue cause so much concern? The US Department of Agriculture first developed Terminator technology in conjunction with multinational seed corporations in the late 1990s. The primary inventor of this technology, Melvin J. Oliver of the United States Department of Agriculture, explained: “Our mission is to protect US agriculture and to make us competitive in the face of foreign competition. Without this, there is no way of protecting the patented seed technology” ( The avowed aim was to protect the investment in the production of superior genetically modified seeds. It gave scientists the ability to modify plants that would produce seeds that grow to maturity but would be incapable of germinating if planted. Put simply, this means that while farmers will get a good crop in the first year of sowing, if they try to save harvested seed for planting in the following year the crop will be sterile, hence the name ‘Terminator’.

When the discovery was made public in 1998 it provoked global condemnation, particularly from Asian and African countries and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity was compelled to impose a moratorium on its further development. To all intents and purposes, the issue seemed closed, although this did not deter the seed corporations from continuing their research and registering patent rights over areas of this technology.

Better than patents
Commercialising Terminator would have a devastating impact on an estimated 1.4 billion of the world’s poorest farmers who depend on ‘saved seeds’ and who exchange seed to develop new varieties suited to their growing conditions as a primary source of seed stock, and hence food. In practice genetically modified Terminator seeds will be neither affordable nor relevant to the needs of farmers in the undeveloped world. Terminator or ‘suicide seeds’ have been developed to prevent the successful sowing of ‘saved seeds,’ with a view to forcing farmers to purchase new seed every year and making them reliant on the seed market dominated by the gene corporations. As a means of controlling seed usage this biological solution is more permanent and infinitely more effective than patent or legal restrictions that seek to deny farmers the right to raise their own seed bank. In short Terminator has been  developed solely to maximise the profits of the seed industry.

Half of the world’s population cannot afford to buy new seed every year and typically depend on ‘saved seed’ and their skills to adapt a blend of varieties to suit growing conditions. Reversing the moratorium would enable the profit-seeking seed industry to enter completely “new sectors of the seed market — especially in self-pollinating seeds such as wheat, rice, cotton, soybeans, oats and sorghum” ( Until recently agribusiness had paid scant regard to crops grown in undeveloped countries, mainly because the industry had been unable to control seed reproduction. Those advocating sterile gene technology claim it could be a boon to undeveloped countries because the corporations that have developed new and better seed would then have the means of protecting their investment and could concentrate on the development of seeds suited to undeveloped countries, hitherto ignored, without having this investment undermined.

There can be little doubt that if Terminator is brought to market the logic of profit will mean the multinational seed corporations will seek to introduce genetic seed sterility into all genetically modified seeds offered for sale. Within a short time this could mean that the world’s two most important food crops – wheat and rice, on which three-quarters of the world’s poorest people depend – would come under the control of the seed monopolies. The notes to the first Terminator patent lodged by Delta and Pine Land explained that the company intended to make its technology widely available to competitors, but this was so as to penetrate the market with Terminator seed as quickly as possible and across as many varieties of crops as is feasible.  

Investment follows profits and if the staple crops of the undeveloped countries can be ‘tied up’ by Terminator, investment will pour into the seed corporations commercially producing seed where market sales can be guaranteed year on year. It can be no coincidence that the agricultural chemical corporations including DuPont, Dow Corning, Novartis, AgroEvo, and Monsanto have acquired major interests in the seed breeding industry where the ten largest corporations control 40 percent of the global seed market.
Not surprising
The UN Bangkok meeting did not, however, conclude in the way the seed corporations had expected. Governments nurturing GM industries not as advanced as those of the US and Canada intervened to thwart the intentions of Canadian government and the multinational corporations. We should not be surprised by the stance of the Canadian government because it is the role of governments to act in the interest of the class who live by profit and it is only doing what is wanted by its masters. But even though the de facto moratorium remains intact the Terminator issue is still on the negotiating table. It will be discussed at the next UN Convention of Biodiversity in March 2006 and the meeting of the G8 in Scotland later this year and every other opportunity thereafter. The multinationals smell blood and have moved up a gear to bring the ‘suicide seed’ to market.

It is unimaginable that in any sane society scientists in GM technology would wish to identify and develop a terminator gene – only a society motivated by profit could consider this worthwhile with no other conceivable purpose than to boost profits to those who sell it. But this is capitalism.

It is often claimed that science is neutral – being neither good nor bad. This is an abstraction that ignores the social relations, the social context in which science develops and fails to address the question – ‘who benefits ’? Technology is almost always directed to the maximisation of profit and frequently has a detrimental impact on the environment or human well-being. With the pool of scientific knowledge reputedly doubling every twelve months people tend to be intimidated by ‘science,’ with no choice but to place reliance on so-called ‘experts’ who generally conceal a vested interest when urging a particular development. The real decisions that influence the world are made in secret and because we live in a society where the interests of the class that own the corporations and companies reign supreme, maximising profits will always head the agenda.

The prudent application of GM technology could be of some benefit to humanity and may be developed in socialism where food will be produced simply to feed people and not for profit. But like so many other scientific developments, the emergence of Terminator demonstrates that certain areas of science can become extremely dangerous when left in the hands of those whose only motivation is profit. In capitalism profit will always prevail over human need and research will normally be funded only into areas where profit can be maximised – regardless of the consequences on human welfare and the planet on which we depend.