"We've continued right on with work on the Technology Protection System [Terminator]. We never really slowed down. We're on target, moving ahead to commercialize it. We never really backed off." - Harry Collins, Delta & Pine Land Seed Co., January, 2000
ISSUE: Despite mounting opposition from national governments and United Nations' agencies, work on Terminator and Traitor (genetic trait control) moves full speed ahead. After Monsanto and AstraZeneca publicly vowed not to commercialize suicide seeds in 1999, governments and civil society organizations were lulled into thinking that the crisis had passed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Last year AstraZeneca conducted its first field trial on genetic trait control technology in the UK. According to industry sources, it is not the first company to conduct field tests. Can commercialization be far behind?
PLAYERS: Delta & Pine Land, the world's largest cotton seed company, proudly asserts that it is "moving ahead to commercialize" Terminator. Monsanto and AstraZeneca have each merged with other companies since they pledged not to commercialize suicide seeds. The Gene Giants collectively hold over 30 Terminator-type patents. Corporate commitments to disavow Terminator are short-lived and virtually meaningless in light of the eye-popping pace of corporate takeovers and makeovers. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Director General Jacques Diouf has joined many South governments in opposing Terminator. Despite massive public protest, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) continues to defend and support anti-farmer, Terminator research.
IMPACT: Without government action to firmly reject Terminator and Traitor, these technologies will soon be available commercially, with potentially disastrous consequences for farmers, food security and biodiversity. Chemically dependent seeds the goal of Traitor technology - will hold farmers and food security hostage to a handful of multinational enterprises. National agricultural production could become wholly dependent upon foreign exports of critical chemical inducers. Entire countries could be forced to surrender national seed sovereignty and be held in biological bondage if governments decided to use the technology to enforce trade sanctions or resolve trade disputes. Could genetic trait control technology become a biological weapon used for agro-terrorism?
POLICY: The future of Terminator/Traitor Technology rests with national governments and multinational corporations. The pressure points for political action are, first and foremost, with national governments around the world. Second, pressure should be applied at key international fora such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, FAO, the World Trade Organization's Trade-Related Intellectual Property (WTO/TRIPs), at the upcoming Global Forum on Agricultural Research in Dresden, and at negotiations in Geneva to strengthen the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. RAFI's work in Year Three of the Terminator will be in these international areas.
Nearly two years after the notorious Terminator patent was issued, Delta & Pine Land Seed Co. and the US government are putting genetically engineered suicide seeds on a fast-track to commercial reality. Agrochemical giant, AstraZeneca, conducted its first field test of "Traitor" technology (genetic trait control) in the UK last year. Meanwhile, FAO's Director General Jacques Diouf, and many South governments, have rejected Terminator. In the following pages, RAFI summarizes recent developments and concludes with policy recommendations. After Monsanto made a public commitment not to commercialize Terminator seeds in October 1999, some governments and civil society organizations were lulled into believing that suicide seeds are "history" and that the crisis had passed. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Monsanto's decision to back away from Terminator technology, after prompting from Rockefeller Foundation's president, Gordon Conway, was an important step. It's not every day that a major multinational enterprise caves in to public opposition and "rejects" a new technology. Over the past year, Monsanto, the world's most visible and notorious corporate crusader for genetically engineered seeds, has been battered and bruised by the anti-biotech backlash. Pulling the plug on Terminator was a desperate attempt by Monsanto to distance itself from what is universally considered the most morally offensive application of ag biotechnology (so far) plants that are engineered to produce sterile seeds.
Traitor technology or "genetic use restriction technology" (GURTs) refers to the use of an external chemical "inducer" to turn on or off a plant's genetic traits the same mechanism used to control seed sterility in Terminator plants.
Terminator and Traitor technology are on a fast track to commercialization. If there were ever any doubt, consider the unequivocal position of Delta & Pine Land (D&PL) Seed Company, as expressed by its vice-president for technology transfer, Harry Collins: "We never really slowed down. We're on target, moving ahead to commercialize it. We never really backed off." (1)
Delta & Pine Land Seed Co. is co-owner, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, of the prototype Terminator patent, US Patent No. 5,723,765. Until recently, Delta & Pine Land's role in developing suicide seeds had been relatively obscured because Monsanto announced that it would acquire D&PL in mid-1998. Stalled by US anti-trust agencies, Monsanto withdrew its takeover bid in December 1999, and paid a break-up penalty of $81 million to D&PL. Now, D&PL, the world's largest cotton seed company, is assuming a risky, high-profile, pro-Terminator position. D&PL is also suing Monsanto for at least $1 billion in damages for allegedly breaching their merger agreement. (2) Though clearly tainted by the negative publicity surrounding Terminator, D&PL is a prize takeover target for the corporate seed industry because of its mammoth market share in commercial cotton seed; the company controls an estimated 71% of the North American cotton seed market and is rapidly expanding in Asia.
CORPORATE MORPHS AND MIRRORS
In 1999, two major Gene Giants, each of whom hold their own Terminator patents, publicly vowed not to commercialize genetic seed sterilization technology. (3) On February 24, 1999 the R&D Director of Zeneca wrote, "Zeneca is not developing any system that would stop farmers growing second-generation seed, nor do we have any intention of doing so." (4) In October 1999 Monsanto's CEO Robert Shapiro pledged "not to commercialize gene protection systems that render seed sterile." (5)
When Shapiro made the announcement, he also made a point of saying that Monsanto does not own its own seed sterilization technology. This is false. In fact, Monsanto's in-house Terminator technology is described in the company's patent, WO 9744465, "Method for Controlling Seed Germination Using Soybean ACYL COA Oxidase Sequences,"published 27 November 1997 under the Patent Cooperation Treaty in Europe. Zeneca's R& D director wrote in 1999 that Terminator was "one piece of technology we did not want to take forward, and the project was stopped in 1992." (6) But ExSeed Genetics, an AstraZeneca joint venture with Iowa State University won a new seed sterilization patent as recently as August 11, 1997, based on a claim made in 1995 three years after AstraZeneca's reportedly abandoned its research on genetic seed sterilization. (7)
Corporate commitments to disavow Terminator are short-lived and virtually meaningless in light of the eye-popping pace of corporate takeovers and makeovers. Monsanto and AstraZeneca have each merged with other companies since they pledged not to commercialize suicide seeds. Will the new corporate entities respect earlier commitments? Is corporate accountability possible in a climate where companies change names and CEOs faster than dance partners?
RAFI has written to all the major Gene Giants who collectively hold more than 30 Terminator-type patents, asking them to clarify or re-state their position on Terminator, especially in light of recent mergers. What happens when AstraZeneca, a company that has vowed not to commercialize genetic seed sterilization, joins forces with Novartis a company that holds at least nine US patents related to Terminator and genetic trait control, and which has not publicly disavowed Terminator? We await responses from AstraZeneca, DuPont, Novartis, Aventis, Monsanto/Pharmacia, BASF and Dow Agrosciences. (Note: We are not currently aware of Terminator or Traitor patents held by Dow, but as a major player in agricultural biotechnology, we have asked Dow to state its position on the issue.)
Ultimately, we cannot depend on the good will of multinational corporations. Without government action to firmly reject Terminator and Traitor, these technologies will be commercialized within a few years, with potentially disastrous consequences for farmers, food security and biodiversity.
"We are against (terminator genes). We are happy to see that in the end some of the main multinationals which have been involved in implementing these terminator genes have decided to backtrack," (8) FAO Director General Jacques Diouf
FAO'S DIOUF SAYS NO TO TERMINATOR
In a recent interview, the Director General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Jacques Diouf declared FAO's opposition to Terminator. Diouf pointed out that the technology would affect farmers in both the North and the South. Diouf's public rejection of Terminator reverses earlier statements made by one high-ranking FAO official. The positive change could be attributed, in part, to the letter-writing campaign of Global Response (a US-based non-profit organization) whose 4,000 members in forty countries wrote to Director General Diouf last year, asking him to oppose the Terminator as a matter of global food security. In publicly rejecting Terminator, FAO's Diouf has come to the defense of the 1.4 billion people who depend upon farm-saved seed for their survival. As the United Nations' voice for global food security, and in the context of its Food for All campaign, FAO member states should now consider a formal resolution to reject Terminator.
SOUTH GOVERNMENTS REJECT TERMINATOR
Last year RAFI sent 550 letters to ministers of agriculture, environment and patent offices in 140 countries. The letters asked government officials to assert national sovereignty over their seed supply and to ban the seed sterilization technology outright. Under the terms of the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), any government can reject an intellectual property claim related to a plant variety if it poses a threat to the environment or offends public morality.
So far, RAFI has received responses from approximately 30 governments. The responses range from governments favoring a complete ban on the technology, to those who are developing a policy on the issue, to those who staunchly defend Terminator. Among the governments that have announced their intention to oppose Terminator technology are Panama, India, Ghana, and Uganda. Many others indicate that the patents require special review and consideration.
India, one of the first governments to publicly reject Terminator, explicitly prohibits Terminator genes in a draft bill "Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights," which is now before the Indian Parliament. (9) Although the proposed bill is controversial and opposed by many Indian CSOs (10) the anti-Terminator clause demonstrates India's fervent, anti-Terminator position. Section 14(2): "...no variety shall be registered under this Act if such variety contains any gene or gene sequence involving any technology including terminator technology which is injurious to the life or health of human beings, animals, or plants".
India's M.S. Swaminathan, former independent chairman of the FAO Council and recipient of World Food Prize, explains:
"For example, in India where there are nearly 100 million operational holdings, denial of plant-back rights or the use of the terminator mechanism will be disastrous from the socio-economic and biodiversity points of view, since over 80 per cent of farmers plant their own farm-saved seeds." M.S. Swaminathan (11)
Ghanaian Minister of Environment, Cletus Avoka, says that his government will not tolerate the use of Terminator technology. (12) Panama's Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries writes that his government "will adopt measures to prohibit the specific patents as well as the technology in general." (13) Ugandan officials have said that their government is discussing measures to outlaw Terminator at the highest levels of government.
While visiting India last year, Maurice F. Strong, past Secretary General of UNCED (Rio Earth Summit) underscored the need for government action to reject Terminator. "If the owners of technology, such as big companies, used it to victimize people through methods such as promotion of 'terminator genes', the state should intervene and not leave the task to the market mechanism." (14)
In the face of international controversy and massive public opposition to Terminator, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) staunchly defends its patent on genetic seed sterilization and continues to negotiate a licensing agreement with its seed industry partner, Delta & Pine Land. The day after Monsanto announced its decision to reject Terminator, the USDA's Richard Parry told the Wall St. Journal, "I think Monsanto needs to carefully reconsider its position." (15) In addition to in- house research, USDA has supported research on suicide seeds at Purdue University (Indiana, USA), which holds its own Terminator patent. (16)
Over ten thousand individuals have written, faxed, phoned and emailed Secretary of Agriculture Glickman, imploring him to abandon the Terminator patent and forego all research on genetic seed sterilization. Farmers and consumers in the US are angry that taxpayer dollars are being used to support research whose primary aim is to increase seed industry profits. Why is USDA blatantly ignoring its farmer constituency and the public outcry against suicide seeds? Using twisted logic and contradictory information, the USDA web site explains the agency's commitment to Terminator and Traitor technology:
"USDA has no plans to introduce TPS into any germplasm in our collections or plant research programs. Our involvement has been to help develop the technology, not to assist companies to use it. ARS is also committed to making the technology as widely available as possible, so that its benefits will accrue to all segments of society. Negotiations with Delta & Pine Land on the licensing terms have focused on this need. ARS [USDA] intends to do research on other applications of this unique gene control discovery, but which are unrelated to seed germination. When new applications are at the appropriate stage of development, this technology will also be transferred to the private sector for commercial application." USDA's Agricultural Research Service web site
On October 27, 1999 RAFI, together with RAFI-USA and other partner CSOs held a press briefing in Washington, DC which was followed by a meeting with US Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman on October 28. (RAFI news release, USDA Must Abandon Terminator Technology, 29 October 1999, http://www.rafi.org) It was the third meeting that RAFI and CSO partners have held with high-level officials at USDA on Terminator, but it was the first audience with Secretary Glickman.
The diverse farmer, consumer, environmental and advocacy organizations asked US Secretary of Agriculture Glickman to act on the following policy recommendations:
Although Glickman pledged to personally look into the issue, there has been no official response. Glickman recently appointed a National Advisory Board on Agricultural Biotechnology. Terminator will undoubtedly be among the first issues on the Board's GMO-laden agenda. USDA's biotech advisory board must act swiftly to veto the Agency's involvement with Terminator technology as an inappropriate goal for publicly funded agricultural research.
MORE BIOLOGICAL BONDAGE: TRAITOR TECHNOLOGY
Last year RAFI warned that the Gene Giants' current focus on genetic trait control technology, or "Traitor" technology, is a launching pad for bioserfdom. Traitor technology or genetic use restriction technology (GURTs) uses external chemicals to switch on or off a plant's genetic traits. If companies can successfully engineer seeds to perform only with the application of a proprietary pesticide or fertilizer, it means that the Gene Giants will dramatically increase sales of their proprietary inputs. Intoxicating seeds for genetic trait control will reinforce chemical dependencies in agriculture that are costly and hazardous for farmers and the environment. An especially disturbing scenario described in some patents is the potential for external chemicals to disable a plant's natural plant functions the plant's ability to fight disease, for instance. The long-term implications, both for farmers and for national seed sovereignty, are sobering. National agricultural production could become wholly dependent upon foreign exports of critical chemical inducers. Entire countries could be forced to surrender national seed sovereignty and be held in biological bondage if governments decided to use the technology to enforce trade sanctions or resolve trade disputes. Could genetic trait technology become a biological weapon used for agro-terrorism? Although Terminator has captured the spotlight, Traitor technology may prove far more insidious because the Gene Giants will argue convincingly that genetic trait control brings positive benefits to farmers (the option of picking from a menu of value-added traits.)
TRAITOR IN THE FIELDS
Traitor technology is not just on the drawing board, it's already in the field. According to Econexus, a UK-based civil society organization, Zeneca received approval from the UK government in 1999 to conduct a field release of genetic trait control in tobacco and potato plants. (17) The field test is designed to test the efficacy of inducible promoters. In the presence of the chemical inducer, ethanol, the tobacco plants are expected to demonstrate an easily identifiable phenotype, such as leaf curling. Zeneca's field test demonstrates that Traitor technology is moving forward. According to Nigel Poole of Zeneca, it was the first field test of an inducible promoter technology for Zeneca, but by no means was it the first field test of that kind for the biotechnology industry. (18)
In 1999, RAFI identified over 30 patent claims related to Terminator and Traitor technology involving virtually all the Gene Giants. Many more patent claims on Traitor technology have issued in recent months. A RAFI update on Traitor technology is forthcoming.
"If the owners of technology, such as big companies, used it to victimize people through methods such as promotion of 'terminator genes', the state should intervene and not leave the task to the market mechanism." Maurice F. Strong, past Secretary-General UNCED (Rio Earth Summit), April 17, 1999
THE BOTTOM LINE
Although global opposition to Terminator and Traitor is strong and growing, it has not stopped companies from moving forward. Meanwhile, governments and civil society are being lulled into thinking that the crisis has passed.
What are the lessons learned over the past two years? And where will the political battles be fought in coming months? To summarize:
WHO HAS THE GUTS TO FIGHT GURTs?
What are the upcoming opportunities for national governments to challenge Traitor technology and call for a ban of Terminator?
National Governments: Governments should ban Terminator as a matter of ordre public. For example, India's draft legislation, "The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights" makes a provision for excluding varieties that are contrary to public morality. Article 29(1) of the Act states: "This clause provides that registration of a variety will not be allowed in cases where prevention of commercial exploitation of such variety is necessary to protect public order or public morality or human, animal or plant life and health or to avoid serious prejudice to the environment. The Central Government can exclude any genus or species from the purview of protection in public interest".
The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD): In June 1999 the CBD's Scientific and Technical Body (SBSTTA) dropped the ball on Terminator when delegates narrowly failed to adopt a proposed "moratorium" on field trials and commercialization of Terminator. Despite strong support by Norway, India, Portugal, Kenya, Peru and a dozen other countries, SBSTTA failed to adopt the moratorium under intense pressure from the US.
The Fifth Conference of the Parties (COPs) to the Convention on Biological Diversity will meet in Nairobi, May 15-26. With Terminator and Traitor technology moving forward rapidly, the COPs must renew efforts to declare Terminator a threat to biodiversity and national sovereignty over genetic resources. At COP 5 in Nairobi, Terminator will become a litmus test for the newly adopted (but not yet ratified) Biosafety Protocol. CBD has already urged parties to exercise caution and apply the Precautionary Principle to genetic seed sterilization. If necessary, CBD must declare precedence over the WTO on this issue.
FAO: At its next full session the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture should pass a resolution condemning Terminator because of the threat it poses to crop genetic diversity. As a recipient of donated seed for poor farmers, FAO should announce that it will neither accept nor distribute seed engineered for sterility, if and when such seeds becomes available.
Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR): The first-ever Global Forum on Agricultural Research will convene in Dresden, Germany May 21-23, 2000. The objective of the meeting is to bring together the major international actors in the area of agricultural research and development to discuss the medium and long-term goals for agricultural research and the South's food security. GFAR should discuss the negative implications of Terminator and Traitor Tech for world food security and should make a statement against the technologies. GFAR should agree to undertake a full review of new biotech approaches to plant breeding in conjunction with the CGIAR review. The CGIAR, the world's largest network of agricultural researchers, has already adopted a policy prohibiting the use of Terminator technology in its Third World plant breeding programs.
World Trade Organization/Trade-Related Intellectual Property (WTO/TRIPS): Under the terms of the WTO/TRIPs, Article 27.2, any government can reject an intellectual property claim if it poses a threat to the environment or offends ordre public (public morality). Concerned governments can argue that the language in Article 27 should be expanded to allow bans not merely on individual plant varieties, but on whole technologies applied to plants, such as Terminator. If successful, this approach will reinforce the efforts of governments who believe that life patenting is against national public morality.
BTWC: The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) ratified by 144 countries bans the development and production of biological weapons. A conference to review and strengthen the 1972 Convention is due in 2001. The Ad Hoc Working Group revising the Biological Weapons Convention should undertake a study of Terminator/Traitor technologies as a possible violation of Article 1 of the Treaty. (19) RAFI does not believe that the US government has any intention of using Traitor or Terminator technology as a biological weapon. Nonetheless, the development of genetic seed sterilization and trait control is war on farmers and on the hungry, and these technologies at least breach the spirit of the BTWC.
The future of Terminator/Traitor Technology rests with national governments and multinational corporations. While pressure should continue to be applied to the USDA to force them to abandon the technology and prevent its licensing in the USA, we recognize that the USDA patents are neither "cutting-edge" nor significant given the scope of research being undertaken by the Gene Giants. Given this reality, the pressure points for political action are, first and foremost, with national governments around the world. Second, pressure should be applied at key international fora such as through the BioSafety Protocol at the CBD, the CBW Treaty negotiations in Geneva, and at WTO TRIPS. If political initiatives can be taken in these fora as well as at FAO and the GFAR in Dresden, both the corporations and the US Government will have to retreat. RAFI's work in Year Three of the Terminator will be in these international areas.
For more information:
Hope Shand, RAFI
Silvia Ribeiro, RAFI
Julie Delahanty, RAFI
RAFI (The Rural Advancement Foundation International) is an international civil society organization based in Canada. RAFI is dedicated to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and to the socially responsible development of technologies useful to rural societies. RAFI is concerned about the loss of agricultural biodiversity, and the impact of intellectual property on farmers and food security.
RAFI International Office, 110 Osborne Street, Suite 202, Winnipeg,
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Last Updated on 10/28/99
By Karen Lutz