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Context of '1994 and after: Biotech Companies Obtain Patents on Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURT)'

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A number of agricultural biotech firms secure patents on genetic use restriction technologies (GURTs). GURT, more commonly known as “terminator” technology, involves genetically engineering seeds to grow into sterile plants. The motivation behind this technology is to provide a means for seed companies to protect their intellectual property rights. By making their seeds genetically sterile, seed companies can prevent farmers from saving and replanting proprietary seeds, thus forcing farmers to purchase new seeds every year. Critics say that biotech companies intend to use the technology to force their seeds on Third World farmers, most of whom engage in subsistence-level farming and plant only common seed. The seed industry sees these farmers as a huge untapped market. Seed savers number an estimated 1.4 billion farmers worldwide—100 million in Latin America, 300 million in Africa, and 1 billion in Asia—and are responsible for growing between 15 and 20 percent of the world’s food supply. [USPTO Patent Database, 3/3/1998; Rural Advancement Foundation International, 3/30/1998; Ecologist, 9/1998] In addition to GURT, companies are seeking to develop a similar technology, called T-GURT or genetic trait control. This technology would make plant growth or the expression of certain genes contingent on whether or not the seed or plant is exposed to certain chemicals. For example, AstraZeneca is developing a technology to produce crops that would fail to grow properly if they are not regularly exposed to the company’s chemicals. The Canadian-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) suggests that T-GURT could serve as a platform upon which certain proprietary traits could be placed. In order to turn positive traits (e.g., herbicide-resistance) on, or negative traits (e.g., sterility) off, the farmer would need to either apply proprietary chemicals to the crops as they grow or pay to have the seeds soaked in a catalyst solution prior to planting. Critics note that this technology, like terminator technology, would require that farmers pay every year to have functioning seeds. Farmers would, in effect, be leasing the seed. Companies developing GURT and T-GURT seeds include Novartis, AstraZeneca, Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Rhone Poulenc, and DuPont. [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 1/27/1999; Rural Advancement Foundation International, 1/30/1999; Rural Advancement Foundation International, 1/30/1999]
Critics Say: -
bullet Terminator seeds would either turn poor farmers into “bioserfs,” by requiring them to pay for their seed every year, or drive these farmers out of farming all together. Proponents counter that farmers would not be forced to buy the seed. [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 3/30/1998]
bullet If biotech seed companies were to penetrate the markets of non-industrialized countries, their seeds would replace thousands of locally grown and adapted varieties resulting in a significant loss of the world’s agricultural biodiversity. [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 3/30/1998]
bullet The use of terminator technology would allow the seed industry to expand into new sectors of the seed market, like those for self-pollinating crops such as wheat, rice, cotton, soybeans, oats and sorghum, according to the Canadian-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). “Historically there has been little commercial interest in non-hybridized seeds such as wheat and rice because there was no way for seed companies to control reproduction. With the patent announcement, the world’s two most critical food crops—rice and wheat—staple crops for three-quarters of the world’s poor, potentially enter the realm of private monopoly.” The organization notes that according to FAO, wheat, the world’s most widely cultivated crop, was grown on 219 million hectares in 1995. Rice, which was cultivated on 149 million hectares that year, produced the most crop by weight at 542 million tons. [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 3/30/1998]
bullet Critics warn that terminator technology would threaten the farmers’ expertise in seed selection and traditional plant breeding. [India, 12/2/1998]
bullet Some scientists have warned that introducing terminator genes into the germplasm could result in the development of a virus that could disable all non-terminator seeds. “This is perfectly possible,” according to Dr. Owain Williams, of the Gaia Foundation. “Already bacteria have been developed for fixing nitrogen into corn roots, so why not a killer bacteria?” [Independent, 3/22/1998]
bullet Terminator technology is also likened to piracy. Anuradha Mittal and Peter Rosset of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy, write: “Patenting genes the same way you patent software robs Third World farmers. While they and their ancestors developed almost all important food crops, transnational corporations can now blithely patent those crops and make mega profits without in any way compensating traditional farm communities for the original research. Genetic resources taken freely from southern countries will be returned to them later as pricey patented commodities. ‘Terminator’ technology is a way of locking this ‘bio-piracy’ into the very genes themselves.” [San Francisco Chronicle, 3/1/1999]
Proponents Say: -
bullet Supporters of the technology say that farmers will not be required to buy the seed and therefore will not purchase it unless they perceive some benefit from using it. Critics say that this scenario is not realistic. In a market dominated by an ever diminishing number of seed companies, selection will be limited. RAFI notes: “Current trends in seed industry consolidation, coupled with rapid declines in public sector breeding, mean that farmers are increasingly vulnerable and have far fewer options in the marketplace.” [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 3/30/1998]
bullet Some proponents argue that terminator seeds would be no different than F1 hybrids, which produce lower quality seeds than their parents. [London Times, 11/4/1998]
bullet Advocates say that terminator technology will allow the industry to safely release genetically modified plants into the environment, without the risk of contaminating related crops or wild plants. [New Scientist, 2/26/2005] Critics say that alleged benefit is outweighed by the danger terminator seeds pose to food safety, farmers’ rights, and agricultural biodiversity. [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 3/30/1998]

Timeline Tags: Seeds, Food Safety

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Delta & Pine Land Company jointly obtain US patent 5,723,765 for a technology that would be used to make sterile seeds (see 1994 and after). The seeds, dubbed “terminator” seeds by critics, would grow into plants that would produce seeds that when replanted would literally kill themselves by producing a toxic protein. Delta & Pine Land has exclusive licensing rights, while the USDA would earn about 5 percent of the net sales of any commercial product using the technology. The USDA and Pine Land Co. have also applied for patents in at least 78 other countries. Delta & Pine Land says in its press release that the technology has “the prospect of opening significant worldwide seed markets to the sale of transgenic technology for crops in which seed currently is saved and used in subsequent plantings.” [USPTO Patent Database, 3/3/1998; Rural Advancement Foundation International, 3/30/1998; Ecologist, 9/1998]

Entity Tags: Delta & Pine Land Company, US Department of Agriculture

Timeline Tags: Seeds

Willard Phelps of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) tells Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) that the goal of terminator technology 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.” Phelps says he wants terminator technology to be “widely licensed and made expeditiously available to many seed companies.” [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 3/30/1998] The USDA shares a patent for terminator technology with Delta & Pine Land (see March 3, 1998).

Entity Tags: Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration, Willard Phelps

Timeline Tags: Seeds

Monsanto says it will purchase Delta & Pine Land Company, the company that shares a jointly-held patent on terminator technology with the US Department of Agriculture (see March 3, 1998). [Ecologist, 9/1998] The acquisition will be stalled by US anti-trust agencies, and in December 1999 Monsanto will drop its bid (see December 19, 1999).

Entity Tags: Delta & Pine Land Company

Timeline Tags: Seeds

Darwin Murrell of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) emails a memo informing the department’s scientists that any research into terminator technology must now be reviewed by senior managers. The USDA jointly holds a patent on the technology with Delta & Pine Land (see March 3, 1998). This is a “sensitive issue,” Murrell says. “Imposing an extra level of review for this research will not create undue delays nor will it restrict the creative talents of our scientists, but it will help them avoid potential political and legal pitfalls.” [New Scientist, 10/10/1998]

Entity Tags: US Department of Agriculture, Clinton administration

Timeline Tags: Seeds

The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a Canadian-based organization that advocates on behalf of poor farmers, discovers that seed companies have collectively obtained 29 patents on technologies that would be used to create seeds whose growth could be restricted. Companies are interested in the technology because they can protect their intellectual property rights by preventing unauthorized—i.e., unpaid for—use of the seed. The first known patent for this type of technology was for the “terminator” seed, developed jointly by Delta & Pine Land Company and the US Department of Agriculture (see March 3, 1998). The technology has been condemned worldwide by a number of governments, scientists, and organizations concerned with food security, farmers’ rights, and biodiversity. The revelation that so many companies still want to develop and use this technology—despite such widespread condemnation—leads Pat Mooney of RAFI to say that seed sterility technology is the “Holy Grail” of the biotech industry. “The notorious terminator patent is just the tip of the iceberg,” explains Mooney, “Every major seed and agrochemical enterprise is developing its own version of suicide seeds,” he adds. [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 1/27/1999; Rural Advancement Foundation International, 1/30/1999; Rural Advancement Foundation International, 1/30/1999]

Entity Tags: Monsanto, Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration, Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., Dupont, AstraZeneca, Novartis, Rhone Poulenc

Timeline Tags: Seeds

The Scientific Body of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (SBSTTA) rejects proposals during a meeting in Montreal to recommend a permanent moratorium on genetic use restriction technologies (GURT). GURTs are those which use genetic engineering to restrict the growth of plants in order to protect the intellectual property rights of the seed developer. The most well-known restriction technology is “terminator” technology (see 1994 and after). Another is “traitor” technology, so named because the traits of seeds and plants produced with this technology can be genetically controlled, e.g., a certain proprietary chemical may be required in order for certain genes to be expressed. The proposal to ban GURTs was made after a report by a blue-ribbon scientific panel was presented before the SBSTTA. The report had concluded that restriction technologies are a threat to agricultural biodiversity and national food security. The delegates at the meeting reportedly agreed that the study was broadly based and well done. After listening to the report, the government of Norway proposed that the SBSTTA recommend a moratorium on field trials and commercialization of the technology. India, Portugal, Kenya, Peru, and several other countries backed the proposal. The US opposed it, as did Canada—though only the US delegation attempted to defend the technology. One of the concerns expressed by supporters of the proposal was that terminator technology could be used to strong arm poorer countries into adopting or accepting certain trade policies. Countries like the US, it was suggested, could withhold seed or the chemicals needed to sustain the growth of chemically dependent plants as a sort of ransom. With the US and Canada opposed to Norway’s proposal, an alternative resolution was drafted by Britain (and then amended by Suriname). Though different than Norway’s, Britain’s proposal would have also recommended a ban on commercialization and field trials. But this was not considered agreeable either. Finally, a “contact group” was formed, which went into private discussion. The compromise that resulted from the closed-door meeting looked nothing like either of the original proposals. Under the provisions of the compromise resolution, governments would have the option of imposing a ban on field trials and commercialization. It failed to affirm the conclusions of the Blue Panel report, making no mention of GURT posing a direct threat to biodiversity or national sovereignty over genetic resources. “I don’t know what happened in that room,” Silvia Ribeiro of Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) says, “There were two reasonably strong resolutions when they went in and one very weak proposal when they came out. I think the South has been tricked.” The new proposal was then weakened even further by the efforts of Australia. Even an industry representative took a stab at weakening the proposal. “In the feeding frenzy, a representative from the seed industry became so excited that he took the floor, presumed the prerogative of a government, and proposed additional resolution text to restrict farmers’ rights to save, exchange, and sell farm-saved seed,” according to RAFI. The following day, during a plenary discussion, RAFI called attention to a little noticed provision that had been slipped into the draft by Australia as an amendment. RAFI noted that it would restrict countries’ rights to impose a moratorium on GURT by linking any moratorium to potential trade sanctions. “Shortly before the debate ended, the US delegation made an ugly and aggressive intervention that put the question to rest: The US bluntly threatened trade sanctions on countries that impose a moratorium and made clear that it was willing to use the WTO to force terminator down the world’s throat,” according to RAFI. [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 6/25/1999; Convention on Biodiversity, 6/27/1999, pp. 23-26 pdf file; Convention on Biodiversity, 6/27/1999; Rural Advancement Foundation International, 6/28/1999; Economic Times of India, 7/8/1999]

Entity Tags: Suriname, Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice, Portugal, United States, United Kingdom, Peru, Kenya, Australia, Canada, Norway, India

Timeline Tags: Seeds

The US Department of Agriculture and cotton seed producer Delta & Pine Land jointly acquire a new patent (US Patent No 5,925,808) for genetic seed sterilization, also known as terminator technology. The patent is for innovations related to its original patent for seed sterilization (see March 3, 1998) issued in March 1998. [USPTO Patent Database, 7/20/1999]

Entity Tags: Delta & Pine Land Company, US Department of Agriculture

Timeline Tags: Seeds

The US Patent office issues its third patent (US Patent No 5,977,441) to the US Department of Agriculture and cotton seed producer Delta & Pine Land for genetic seed sterilization, commonly known as terminator technology. The patent is for innovations related to two earlier patents (see March 3, 1998) issued in March 1998 and July 1999 (see July 20, 1999). [USPTO Patent Database, 11/2/1999]

Entity Tags: Delta & Pine Land Company, US Department of Agriculture

Timeline Tags: Seeds

Biotech giant Monsanto and drug maker Pharmacia & Upjohn Inc. agree to merge. Together the two companies have a combined market value of about $52 billion. [New York Times, 12/20/1999] Shortly after the merger announcement, Monsanto says it has decided to drop its bid (see May 11, 1998) for Delta & Pine Land, the cotton seed company that shares a patent (see March 3, 1998) with the Department of Agriculture for terminator technology. [Reuters, 12/22/1999]

Entity Tags: Monsanto, Pharmacia & Upjohn Inc, Delta & Pine Land Company

Timeline Tags: Seeds

At the fifth meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), member countries adopt a recommendation not to approve field testing or commercialization of GURTs, also known as terminator technology, until additional scientific research has been done. The recommendation, submitted by the Convention’s Scientific Advisory Body (SBSTTA) (see June 15, 1999-June 21, 1999), also say countries should have the option to ban the technologies at the national-level if they so choose. Delegates from several of the non-industrialized countries and a number of civil society organizations are disappointed with the COP 5 decision. They wanted a complete and immediate permanent international ban on the technology because of the potentially devastating effect the technology could have on the food security and agricultural biodiversity. [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 6/16/2000] For example, the African Group’s statement calls on all countries to “immediately ban the terminator technology from respective national territories and thus, from the whole of Africa, as intolerable politically, economically and ethically and in terms of safety of plant life, and in the future, be constantly on the look out for unacceptable products of biotechnology.” [Biodiversity Convention African Group, 5/2000] Other parties calling for a complete ban on terminator technology include Kenya, the Philippines, India, Tanzania, and Malawi. [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 6/16/2000] Many countries, including most of the G77 (with the exception of Argentina) and China, though not calling for an immediate ban, nonetheless agree that GURT is a very serious issue. Noting the heavy reliance on subsistence farming of farmers in their respective countries, they say in a statement, “[W]e feel very strongly on the GURTs issue, as they may impact negatively on our agricultural biodiversity.” [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 6/16/2000] It is also noted at the meeting that portions of the SBSTTA decision are outdated. For example, the SBSTTA in making its recommendation the previous year assumed that GURTs were “not likely to be commercialized in the near future and that at this time no example of the technology has been released in either research or investigative field trial.” This can no longer be said, according to Rural Advancement Foundation International, whose monitoring of the industry has revealed that seven new terminator patents were issued to industry and public sector researchers in 1999 and that biotech company AstraZeneca has already conducted field trials on genetic trait control technology in Britain. [Rural Advancement Foundation International, 6/16/2000] The final text of the GURTs portion of the COP5 decision reads: “[I]n the current absence of reliable data on genetic use restriction technologies without which there is an inadequate basis on which to assess their potential risks, and in accordance with the precautionary approach, products incorporating such technologies should not be approved by Parties for field testing until appropriate scientific data can justify such testing, and for commercial use until appropriate, authorized and strictly controlled scientific assessments with regard to, inter alia, their ecological and socio-economic impacts and any adverse effects for biological diversity, food security and human health have been carried out in a transparent manner and the conditions for their safe and beneficial use validated. In order to enhance the capacity of all countries to address these issues, Parties should widely disseminate information on scientific assessments, including through the clearing-house mechanism, and share their expertise in this regard.” [Convention on Biodiversity, 5/2000]

Entity Tags: Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity

Timeline Tags: Seeds

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Ethics Panel meets in Rome to consider the ethical implications of recent advances in biotechnology. The panel is made up of world-renowned agronomists and ethicists. The focus of their discussion is on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food and agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. Following the meeting, the panel prepares a report that includes a summary of its views and lists a number of recommendations. The overriding concern of the report, completed some time in 2001, is that there is an inherent conflict between the interests of the corporations developing the technology and the social issues that GMO defenders say the technology will address. The biotech industry’s primary concern is “to maximize profits,” not to address the needs of the world’s rural poor, the report says. The panel notes that the private sector receives more resources than the public sector for GMO research, and that in some cases, public resources are actually being diverted to support private sector priorities. Another problem, according to the panel, is that the adoption of GM crops could undermine farmers’ livelihoods. Noting the power and leverage enjoyed by industry, the panel’s report warns that seed companies “may gain too much control over the rights of local farmers” and create a dependency among the rural poor on imported seeds. This would especially be the case if the biotech industry were to move ahead with genetic use restriction technologies (GURT), more commonly known as terminator technology (see 1994 and after). “The Panel unanimously stated that the ‘terminator seeds’ are generally unethical, as it is deemed unacceptable to market seeds whose offspring a farmer cannot use again because the seeds do not germinate,” the report says. “GURTs are not inherent in genetic engineering. While corporations are entitled to make profits, farmers should not be forced to become dependent on the supplier for new seeds every planting season.” However the panel says it does believe there is potential for the ethical use of GURTs. According to the panel, “Where the concern is with possible outcrossing of crops, for example GMOs that could damage wild plant populations, GURTs might be justified. This may also apply elsewhere: when the primary concern is to prevent reproduction of farmed fish with wild populations, for example, then GURTs could be useful in protecting wild populations.” In conclusion, the panel stresses the need for independent, publicly-funded research on GMOs that is “directed to the needs and benefits of poor farmers, herders, foresters and fishers.” [Food and Agriculture Organization, 2001 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Panel of Eminent Experts on Ethics in Food and Agriculture

Timeline Tags: Seeds

About 70 indigenous leaders representing 26 Andean and Amazon communities meet in the Peruvian mountain village of Choquecancha for two days to draft a report on the potential impacts terminator seeds would have on their communities if the international moratorium on the technology were to be lifted. The report will be submitted to a UN working group which has been tasked with examining “the potential socio-economic impacts of genetic use restriction technologies on indigenous and local communities.” The UN working group will submit recommendations to the next conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity which will decide whether or not to continue its de facto ban on terminator seeds. The meeting of indigenous leaders is held under the auspices of the Quechua-Aymara Association for Nature and Sustainable Development (ANDES) and the International Institute for Environment and Development. The indigenous leaders say in their report that they are concerned that pollen from terminator seeds could transfer sterility to and effectively kill off other crops and plant life. Another worry is that use of the technology would increase their dependence on the seed industry, a conclusion that was also reached by the UN Agriculture and Food Organization’s Ethics Panel in 2000 (see September 26, 2000-September 28, 2000). The group says the expansion of monocultural farming and the use of terminator technology could put the region’s 3,000 varieties of potato at risk. The indigenous leaders say they are especially concerned about a patent that has been obtained by Syngenta on technology that would be used to produce sterile potato seeds. Syngenta’s seeds would only grow if treated with chemicals. “Terminator seeds do not have life,” says Felipe Gonzalez of the indigenous Pinchimoro community. “Like a plague they will come infecting our crops and carrying sickness. We want to continue using our own seeds and our own customs of seed conservation and sharing.” [Development, 9/27/2005 pdf file; Inter Press Service, 10/11/2005; International Institute for Environment and Development, 10/6/2006]

Entity Tags: Aymara, Quechua-Aymara Association for Nature and Sustainable Development, Quechua, International Institute for Environment and Development

Timeline Tags: Seeds

At a UN meeting in Granada, the Convention on Biological Diversity’s “Working Group on Article 8(j)” meets ahead of the Convention’s eighth biennial meeting to discuss implementation of Article 8(j) and related provisions of the Convention, as requested by the seventh conference of the Convention that took place in 2004 in Kuala Lumpur. [Convention on Biodiversity, 2/20/2004] Article 8(j) of the convention calls on member countries to protect the traditional knowledge, innovation, and practices of indigenous peoples and peasant farmers. One of the group’s tasks is to “consider the potential socio-economic impacts of genetic use restriction technologies on indigenous and local communities” and make a recommendation based on three previous UN reports (see February 19, 2003-February 21, 2003; February 7, 2005; September 26, 2000-September 28, 2000) and official submissions from indigenous peoples and farmers’ organizations (see September 26, 2005-September 27, 2005). In every one of these reports, terminator technology was considered a threat to the poor. In spite of this, the Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian governments, guided by a US representative (the US has not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity) and industry lobbyists, push to make the Working Group’s recommendations supportive of terminator technology. Lobbyists for the seed companies include Harry Collins, vice president of Delta & Pine Land, and Roger Krueger of Monsanto. Delta & Pine Land jointly holds three patents on terminator technology with the US Department of Agriculture. According to the ETC Group, a Canadian-based organization opposed to terminator seeds whose representatives are present at this meeting, “With a US government official consulting at her side, the Australian negotiator insisted on deleting reference to the ‘precautionary approach’ and used this as a bargaining chip to win controversial wording for a ‘case-by-case risk assessment’ of terminator.” However, the efforts of these countries to draft a recommendation that would weaken the moratorium on terminator seeds are opposed by the majority of other parties, including Spain, the African Group, Egypt, the Philippines, Norway, Pakistan, Kenya, India, and Brazil. [ETC Group, 1/27/2006; National Farmers Union, 1/27/2006; Canadian Press, 1/30/2006] Australia refuses to budge and it is finally agreed to revise the recommendation to say that further research on terminator technology should include “a case-by-case risk assessment basis with respect to different categories of GURTs technology subject to the precautionary approach.” [Convention on Biodiversity, 1/27/2005 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Brazil, Working Group on Article 8(j), Australia, Canada, Harry B. Collins, New Zealand, Spain, Philippines, India, Kenya, Norway, Pakistan, Roger Krueger, Egypt

Timeline Tags: Seeds

Monsanto announces that it will purchase Delta & Pine Land Company, the world’s largest cotton seed company, and the first company to obtain a patent on terminator technology (see March 3, 1998). Monsanto has had its sights on Delta & Pine Land for years. A previous plan to buy the company—announced in 1998 (see May 11, 1998)—fell through in December 1999 (see December 19, 1999). The acquisition means that Monsanto will control over 57 percent of the US cotton seed market. It will also deepen Monsanto’s reach into the developing world, where Delta & Pine Land has subsidiaries in 13 countries—including India, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, and Pakistan. According to the ETC Group, an outspoken critic of terminator technology, “the takeover means that Monsanto will command a dominant position in one of the world’s most important agricultural trade commodities and that millions of cotton farmers will be under increased pressure to accept genetically modified (GM) cottonseed.” [Monsanto, 8/15/2006; ETC Group, 8/16/2006]

Entity Tags: Monsanto, Delta & Pine Land Company

Timeline Tags: Seeds

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