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Seeds

Environment

Project: Genetic Engineering and the Privatization of Seeds
Open-Content project managed by Derek, mtuck

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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: Food Safety

Category Tags: Terminator seeds, Food security, Biotech/seed industry, Biodiversity, Farmers' rights, Environment, Biotech patents

Delta & Pine Land, a US seed company, dumps 30,000 sacks of expired chemical-coated cotton seed on a one-hectare area of land in a small rural community in Paraguay. This happens twice—once in November 1998, and then again in January, the following year. The dump site is only about 170 meters from a school in Rincon’I, a small community of around 3,000 people located about 120 kilometers from Asuncion. The seeds have a coating comprised of Orthene (acefate), benlate, lorsban, Metalaxyl, baytan-Thirann, and Kodiac (a genetically modified bacterium). The pesticides alone are estimated to account for 5 tons of the 660-ton pile. Labels on the seed bags reveal the presence of carcinogenic chemicals and warn that they can cause genetic mutations. At least one person dies as a result of exposure to the seeds. Agustin Ruiz Aranda, a 30-year-old father of four, dies on December 28, 1998. His wife is five months pregnant. The cause of death is recorded as “acute intoxication by contamination from toxic agrochemicals.” His symptoms were reportedly identical to those associated with intoxication with acephate and metamidophos. Acephate, one of the chemicals present in the seeds, turns into metamidophos when combined with water. Residents of Rincon’I complain of headaches, nausea, faintness, insomnia, and dizziness. Children suffer appetite loss and get welts on their skin. Physician Pablo Balmaceda sees 74 Rincon’I residents and finds that every one of them has been poisoned with organophosphates. A Brazilian biochemist, Lenini Alves de Carvalho, confirms Balmaceda’s conclusions. Agronomist Sebastian Pinheiro, director of the IUF’s Department of Health and the Environment, tells Inter Press Service, “There are no precedents that can help us predict what could happen. But people who have been contaminated will probably experience a decline in their natural defenses, and show a tendency to develop serious diseases.” A report dated April 21, 1999 by the Paraguayan Department for Environmental Protection will also confirm the presence of toxins, and it will warn that potential long-term risks include “genetic alterations, cancers, and poisoning.” It also finds contamination in the soil and water table and calls for more investigation. The incident is reported widely in Paraguay, but makes no headlines in the US. After a court ruling, the company admits that it dumped the seeds but refuses to acknowledge their toxicity. [Inter Press Service, 6/4/1999; Rural Advancement Foundation International, 6/22/1999; International Union of Food Workers, 6/25/1999] In mid-1999, Roger Malkin, president of Delta & Pine Land, will say that “investigations by the Paraguayan health and environmental agencies involved have been unable to identify a single case in which the health of people or the environment was affected” by the seed disposal. [Global Pesticide Campaigner, 8/1999] Rather than clean-up the site, the company offers monetary compensation and suggests that seeds could be used as green manure to fertilize the fields. “The tragic irony,” says Miguel Lovera, who works for an Asuncion-based organization, “is that the biotech industry promised to clean up the environment and help feed hungry people. Instead, my country is being used as a dumping ground for high-tech seeds and deadly chemicals that are contaminating rural communities and endangering lives.” Only the Geneva-based International Union of Food and Agricultural Workers offers the community of Rincon’I any help. Even Paraguay’s government resists helping the community. [Inter Press Service, 6/4/1999; Rural Advancement Foundation International, 6/22/1999; International Union of Food Workers, 6/25/1999]

Entity Tags: Delta & Pine Land Company

Category Tags: Environment, Delta & Pine Land

Several weeks after banning terminator seeds in India (see Before October 10, 1998), Shri Sompal, the country’s minister of agriculture summarizes the threat posed by the technology in a public statement: “This is lethal and poses a global threat to farmers, biodiversity, and food and ecological security. The use of this technology would threaten the farmers’ rights to save the seed for their harvest. Because of the lethal nature of the product, the public has been asked to be wary of the introduction of genetically modified foods in many parts wherever this technique is being tried to be introduced.… The farmer will be dependent upon terminator seed and will have to buy the same seed again and again. The company producing the seed can charge any price from the farmers. The farmer will not be in a position to use seeds saved from the previous crops. It will threaten the farmers’ expertise in seed selection and traditional conservation-cum-improved ways of carrying forward the seeds. The technology would have serious implications on the crop biodiversity. It may lead to gradual extinction of traditional varieties. Crop related wild varieties, important for natural evolution for crop species would be affected by cross-contamination. This concern would be of special relevance to India, since the country abounds in land races and wild relatives of crop plants.” [Rediff, 12/1/1998; India, 12/2/1998]

Entity Tags: India

Category Tags: India, Farmers' rights, Biodiversity, Food security, Environment, Terminator seeds

The Royal Society of Canada’s biotech experts releases a report concluding that genetically modified (GM) canola plants resistant to different herbicides have crossbred with each other to produce offspring stronger than their parents. The genes of three different types of GM canola have merged into new varieties resistant to many pesticides, the report says. When these plants show up as volunteers in fields planted with another crop, farmers are finding that they need to resort to broad spectrum herbicides like 2,4-D—the very chemicals farmers are trying to use less of—to kill them. [Royal Society of Canada, 1/2001 pdf file; Star Phoenix (Saskatoon), 2/6/2001]

Entity Tags: Royal Society of Canada

Category Tags: Environment, Canola, Studies-government

The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace announces that it is joining the Council of Canadians in a campaign against the patenting of genetically modified (GM) seeds. Roger Dubois, the organization’s president, says one of the reasons the group opposes seed patenting is because it undermines food security and the rights of farmers, especially in the Third World. “Food security for the world’s hungry requires decentralizing control, yet biopatenting centralizes control,” says Ottawa Archbishop Marcel Gervais. The group says that many farmers have stopped using traditional seeds as a result of government programs providing free patented seeds or advertisements promising higher yields. Once hooked, the farmers are prohibited from seed saving, a practice that is thousands of years old, unless they agree to a contract and pay a special fee. Moreover, they are required to use expensive pesticides and fertilizers. Their adoption of GM crops results in the contamination of non-GM plants, thus leading to the loss of traditional seed varieties. The organization is also opposed to the development of genetically modified seeds because it threatens biodiversity and is known to cause adverse environmental consequences. It notes that GM plants that produce their own pesticides harm beneficial insects such as bees and butterflies and that herbicide resistant varieties of plants can pass their traits to their wild cousins, thus creating “superweeds.” [Canadian Press, 10/3/2002; Canada NewsWire, 10/3/2002]

Entity Tags: Council of Canadians, Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace

Timeline Tags: Food Safety

Category Tags: Resistance, Farmers' rights, Food security, Biodiversity, Environment

Federal Judge J. Michael Seabright rules that the US Department of Agriculture violated both the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act when it allowed the cultivation of drug-producing GM crops in Hawaii. The court says the USDA acted in “utter disregard” of the two laws because it failed even to conduct preliminary investigations before granting approval for the growing of these crops. The Hawaii islands are home to 329 endangered and threatened species. Seabright’s ruling is the first court decision regarding plants that have been genetically modified to produce pharmaceutical drugs or industrial compounds. The case primarily concerned four permits that had been issued to Monsanto, ProdiGene, Garst Seed Company, and the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center allowing them to grow drug-producing corn and sugarcane at various locations in Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, and Maui between 2001 and 2003. The plaintiffs in the case—Center for Food Safety, Friends of the Earth, Pesticide Action Network North America, and KAHEA (the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance)—also challenged the USDA’s practice of refusing to disclose the locations where experimental chemical-producing GM plants are being grown and what substances those plants are being developed to produce. [Center for Food Safety, et al. v. Mike Johanns, et al., 8/10/2006 pdf file; Center for Food Safety, 8/14/2006]

Entity Tags: Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, Center for Food Safety, Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, US Department of Agriculture, Monsanto, Pesticide Action Network North America, J. Michael Seabright, ProdiGene, Garst Seed Company

Category Tags: Experimental GM Crops, Court decisions, Environment

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