"Terminator" Technology Threatens World Food Security

Date: March 1999  

What "built-in obsolescence" did for manufacturing companies, genetic engineering is now doing for agro-industry. Last year, Monsanto in the U.S. and Astra-Zeneca in the U.K. patented seeds that are only good for one harvest; the second-generation seeds are genetically engineered to be sterile. Farmers who plant these "Terminator Seeds" are hooked into purchasing new seed every year.

Organizations of small farmers around the world are challenging the morality of Terminator Technology, which they fear may terminate them. Poor farmers cannot afford to purchase seeds every growing season. They grow 15 to 20 per cent of the world’s food, most of it from seeds saved from the previous harvest. At least 1.4 billion people depend on farm-saved seed for their survival.

"The development of the terminator technology is completely against human rights to livelihood, and it can result in virtual genocide for thousands (if not millions) of people," warns Lori Ann Thrupp, Director of Sustainable Agriculture at the World Resources Institute. "The terminator technology is a recipe for exacerbating and greatly increasing the problem of world hunger."

So far tests of Terminator Technology have only been successful with cotton and tobacco seeds, but Monsanto hopes to add rice, wheat, sorghum and soybeans to the list in the next 5 years. The impact will be great in the plains states of the U.S. and Canada. By some estimates, 20 to 30 percent of all soybean fields in the US midwest are planted with farm-saved seed. Most American and Canadian wheat farmers rely on farm-saved seeds and return to the commercial market once every four or five years, according to a report by the Rural Advancement Foundation International, based in Winnepeg.

Farmers’ Choice?

Proponents of Terminator Technology argue that if farmers don’t want Terminator Seeds they don’t have to buy them. But farmers’ choices can be severely limited when seed companies, national governments and banks offer credit only to those farmers who agree to plant selected varieties. Farmers throughout the developing world have already suffered this kind of coercion, forcing them to use agrochemicals and genetically engineered seeds.

For the 12,000 years that human beings have farmed, they have selected seeds from the plants best adapted to local conditions. Plant breeding around the world by small farmers (most of them women) makes agriculture possible on the marginal lands of the poor. The diverse crop varieties bred by small farmers provide a valuable source of genetic diversity that is used by plant breeders around the world to maintain pest and disease resistance in our major food crops.

Terminator Technology "robs farming communities of their age-old right to save seed and their role as plant breeders," says Camila Montecinos of Chile’s Center for Education and Technology. "The sole purpose is to facilitate monopoly control, and the sole beneficiary is agribusiness."

Monsanto and Astra-Zeneca say that the Terminator’s enormous profitability will motivate seed companies to intensify research and development of wheat and rice – and the whole world will benefit. But the seed industry has never developed seeds adapted to the needs of small and subsistence farmers on marginal lands. The US Department of Agriculture, which helped Monsanto develop Terminator Seeds, admits the goal is "to increase the value of proprietary seed owned by US seed companies and to open up new markets in second and third world countries." Monsanto/USDA has already applied for patents in 87 countries.

Opposition Mounting

India acted quickly to protect its farmers, food security and biodiversity by rejecting Terminator Technology. "Every country has the right to deny licenses for Terminator patents," explains Pat Mooney, director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). "If international organizations take a strong stand against Terminator Technology, governments will take heed. Governments must refuse to license Terminator patents to protect their farmers from the potentially devastating effects of this technology."

Last October, Terminator Technology took a blow when the world’s largest international agricultural research network, CGIAR, banned Terminator Technology from its crop breeding programs. A resolution to condemn the Terminator will come before the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in April. As the voice for world food security, the FAO can effectively influence governments to reject Terminator Technology.

Global Response, an international network for environmental action and education, is launching a letter campaign urging the FAO to condemn Terminator Technology. Call Global Response at 303/444-0306 for names and addresses of people at FAO, USDA and Monsanto who need to hear from concerned citizens. Or visit the Global Response website: http://www.globalresponse.org