Terminator of food security

Print edition : October 10, 1998

'Terminator' technology, which could deal a fatal blow to millions of resource-poor farmers in developing countries, has attracted severe criticism across the world.

A BIOTECHNOLOGICAL innovation patented in the United States portends great danger to agriculture and food security worldwide, particularly in developing countries. Scientists have questioned the technology on ethical as well as scientific grounds. The patent, U.S. Patent Number 5,723,765 and titled "Control of Plant Gene Expression", was granted on March 3, 1998 by the United States Patents Office to the U.S. Department of Agricu-lture and the seed company, Delta and Pine Land Co., a subsidiary of the seeds and agro-chemicals multinational Monsa-nto/American Home Products. It is for a technique that can alter seeds genetically so that crops raised using them do not yield seeds that germinate.

The technology has been appropriately named "Terminator" by the Canadian non-governmental organisation (NGO) Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), which has spearheaded an international campaign against it. Terminator alters the expression of certain genes in plants so that plants terminate their reproductive switch, abort the embryo and make themselves sterile. Such plants then produce seeds that cannot germinate.

Although it may take a few years for this technology to become commercial (according to Monsanto's Indian division, the gene is only a concept), for 90 per cent of the 100 million farmers of India, who traditionally save a portion of their harvest as seeds for the next sowing season, import of seeds with this gene would mean buying seeds every crop season from the seed companies. According to scientists across the world, Terminator could deal a fatal blow to some 1.4 billion resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

The utter disregard of the patent holders for farmers in developing countries is obvious from the justification offered by Murray Robinson, president of Delta and Pine Land Co., that the technology was devised to prevent theft and unauthorised cultivation of proprietary seeds. "It will provide seed companies a safe avenue for introducing this technology into countries such as India, Pakistan and China," Robinson said.

Transgenic systems will have an adverse impact on traditional farming practices.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

It took four years and an investment of $720,000 to develop the technique, according to RAFI. The USDA spent $190,000 and Delta and Pine Land Co. $275,000 on in-house research expenses and the two jointly spent $255,000. The patent covers seeds of all crop varieties, including genetically modified and conventionally developed seeds. Although the technology has been experimented only on cotton and tobacco, Murray Robinson beli-eves that it will be effective in all major crops, including wheat and rice.

While Delta and Pine Land Co. has been given exclusive licence to sell the seeds, the USDA is to get a royalty of 5 per cent on the net sales. The USDA and Delta Pine Land Co. have applied for licence in 78 countries. If the technology becomes widely licensed, the commercial seed sector would end up controlling the international seed market, including the market for the seeds of self-pollinating crops such as wheat, rice, soyabean and sorghum, which it has found difficult to control until now.

Delta and Pine Land Co. is the largest cottonseed company in the world, and had a turnover of $183 million in 1997. Monsanto, its parent company, operates in India in the seeds and agro-chemicals market. Monsanto, which bought Delta and Pine Land for $1.76 billion a few weeks after the latter got the patent for Terminator technology, is now the largest pesticide firm, the second largest seed company and one of the 10 largest producers of pharmaceutical and veterinary medicines in the world.

AGRICULTURAL scientist Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, who was instrumental in making the Green Revolution a success in India, describes the technology as "unethical" and fears that it has the potential to "endanger the country's food security". He points out five major issues relating to the technology, which have caused concern.

First, he questions the ethical and social relevance of the technology in a country like India where the farming community comprises 70 per cent of the population and 90 per cent of the farmers depend on saved seeds and rely on the age-old practice of choosing seed varieties to suit the soil conditions. (In the U.S., hardly 2 per cent of the population is engaged in agriculture.) The Terminator mechanism would leave traditional farmers unable to use or exchange saved seeds.

Secondly, there is the danger of this technology affecting unintended targets. It is possible that pollen from crops grown using Terminator seeds would transfer the mechanism to crops grown nearby and cause sterility in their seeds too, which would be known only when they are sown the next season. This could lead to a fall in agricultural production in successive years, endangering the food security of the country.

The technology can affect the livelihood of the majority of Indians. Although only 30 per cent of India's Gross National Product (GNP) comes from agriculture, 70 per cent of its people depend on agriculture for their livelihood. So, in human terms, if not in economic terms, agriculture is very important for the country. According to Dr. Swaminathan, "the country's agriculture, livelihood and food security are at great risk from this killer technology."

The third concern is that it is possible to kill the embryo, in order to render the seed sterile, only by releasing some chemicals or toxins into it. As the seed is used only for consumption, what are its nutritional implications? According to Dr. Swaminathan, many diseases such as cancer occur owing to chance consumption of certain chemicals over a period of time. Thus, one is not sure if it is safe to consume grain that has been genetically engineered in this manner.

Even in the case of cotton, this technology can prove harmful. In India, cottonseed cake is used as animal feed, which means the Terminator chemical can get into the plant-animal food chain.

The fourth fear is that the country's rich genetic biodiversity will be lost. Large areas may be covered by just one genotype, and would affect the efforts directed towards the revitalisation of on-farm conservation traditions and the breeding of location-specific varieties through participatory breeding methods. If this technology gains wide acceptance, farmers would have to buy seeds every year from the same company. There will thus be just one kind of seed everywhere for a given crop. Such homogeneity would enhance the seed's genetic vulnerability to pests and diseases.

The fifth concern is that if seed companies use tetracycline to activate the toxin gene, every seed sown will have to be treated with the chemical. What will be the impact of planting tetracycline-soaked seeds on soil ecology, particularly on micro-flora and fauna?

SCIENTISTS the world over have protested against the patenting of this technology, describing it as a major assault on resource-poor farmers. Britain's Prince Charles, who is against genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and who has been practising organic farming for the last 12 years, cautions that "once such genetic material is released into the environment it cannot be recalled." In the July issue of the British magazine The Plant Talk, he says: "If something goes wrong (with such GMOs), we will be faced with the problem of clearing up a kind of pollution that is self-perpetuating. I am not convinced that anyone has an idea of how this could be done or who would pay for it...I personally have no wish to eat anything produced by genetic modification, nor will I knowingly offer this sort of a produce for my family or guests."

Farmers' organisations across India have demanded a ban on any seed material containing the Terminator gene. The Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha even sought the termination of the research projects undertaken by the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, with Monsanto.

When news about the killer technology broke on the Internet, Dr. Swaminathan alerted the Director-General of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), Dr. R.S. Paroda, and the Secretary of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Dr. Manju Sharma, besides warning the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), about the potential dangers of the technology. The CGIAR Committee on Genetic and Policy Research, which met in Syria in April, decided to take urgent action to warn people about the dangers of the technology.

Realising the seriousness of the problem, the ICAR and the DBT set up a monitoring committee, which came out with a plan of action on May 19 to ensure that this lethal technology did not enter India. The Government of India refused licence to the patent holders to sell the Terminator seeds in the country. It also banned the import of such seeds and directed the quarantine office of the Customs Department, which has 18 stations spread over the country, to ensure that no transgenic seed material is permitted entry and that imported seeds get the approval of the Plant Protection Authority in the Ministry of Agriculture before they are released.

The ICAR-DBT committee has recommended an institutional mechanism, including a legislative instrument, to prevent the entry of Terminator seeds, especially through private seed companies. For this, the committee has recommended a single point of entry for imported seeds and such other materials. In the case of bulk imports, samples need to be drawn and analysed at ports and other points of entry to confirm that the material is free from the Terminator gene.

This would require facilities to check for transgenic material and quarantine suspect materials. Dr. Kuntala Jayaraman, Dean (Technology) and Director of the Department of Biotechnology, Anna University, Chennai, regrets that the "quarantine offices are not competent enough to determine the quality of seeds." She suggested that laboratories be set up to test imported seeds and special training be given to quarantine and Customs officials.

According to Dr. Swaminathan, the quarantine arrangements at the various ports of entry in India are not adequate. The Customs Department's quarantine instructions are generally not adhered to. Travellers are supposed to declare food and agricultural items with the Quarantine Office. This rule, he says, has to be enforced strictly, and an awareness must be created about the potential dangers inherent in the current practice. Says Dr. Swaminathan: "Our Customs Department is oriented to look for gold, electronic items, computers and so on, not for seeds and plants." He suggests the setting up of separate units in the DBT for bio-safety, bio-ethics and bio-surveillance.

CLOSE on the heels of the patent issued for Terminator has come the patent for "Verminator", granted to the British firm Zeneca. Verminator is also a chemically activated seed-killer. But unlike Terminator, which uses tetracyline, Verminator kills seeds by "switching on rodent fat genes that have been bio-engineered into crops".

Dr. Swaminathan feels that Verminator technology is more sophisticated than Terminator. However, he says, both these patents expose the mindset of large seed companies, which are engaged in a trade war and are anxious to ensure that farmers buy seeds every year.

GMOs have kicked up a worldwide controversy. On June 7, Switzerland conducted a referendum on whether or not to permit the entry of GMOs. The U.S. is the only country where GMOs are extensively used. This is because the U.S. has installed bio-safety measures and effective quarantine facilities.

It is possible that the Terminator technology will find application in all major food crops.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Defending Terminator technology, Dr. Harry. B. Collins, vice-president (technology transfer) of Delta and Pine Land, said at a Food and Agriculture Organisation meeting on food and genetic resources held in Rome in June: "The centuries-old practice of farmer-saved seed is 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."

According to Dr. Hope Shand, RAFI's research director, such defence put out by the patent holders reveals a shocking ignorance about the way in which poor farmers conserve and use diversity, about the complexity of their farming systems, and about their economic realities and survival strategies in marginal farming environments.

According to Dr. Swaminathan, there is a need for a universal declaration on Plant Genome and Farmers' Rights similar to the universal declaration on Human Genome and Human Rights adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris on November 11, 1997. The UNESCO declaration stipulates in Article 10 that "no research or research applications concerning the human genome, in particular in the fields of biology, genetics and medicine, should prevail over respect for the human rights, fundamental freedom and human dignity of individuals."

According to Latha Rangan, research scholar at the Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, the Terminator gene is devised to imprint forever deprivation on the gene of the poor farmers. Says Dr. Hope Shand: "This is one way adopted by the developed countries not only to make a lot of money by selling seeds every season to farmers all over the world but also to call the shots on the agriculture and the livelihood and food security of the developing countries."

That is why it is important, says Dr. Swaminathan, not to stop just with strict regulations at the entry points, but to launch a large-scale public awareness and education programme.

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