FROM 'TERMINATOR' TO 'TRAITOR' TECHNOLOGIES
First the 'Terminator' technology and now the 'Traitor' technology - the few Northern-based transnational corporations are just determined to strengthen their grip on the world seed market.
By Chakravarthi Raghavan
Geneva: As trade, agriculture and other policy-makers in developing countries are still trying to grapple with the implications of the 'Terminator' technology, which prevents farmers from saving their own seeds but forces them to buy seeds from transnational seed suppliers, a new range of technologies is now being patented to strengthen the monopolistic grip of a handful of Northern-based transnational corporations that produce and market fertilisers, pesticides and transgenic seeds.
More than two dozen patent claims have been filed for these 'discoveries', dubbed as 'Traitor' technology (for negative traits bred into a seed) by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a Canada-based international NGO active in tracking and exposing such activities. RAFI says that if left unchecked, Traitor technology could by the year 2010 easily dominate and control nearly 80% of the world's seed market through 'transgenic' seeds, and increasing the dependence of farmers on these seed supplies, fertilisers and herbicides and pesticides (produced and marketed by the same firms).
Calling for concerted actions across a wide front, RAFI has advocated that governments should invoke the order public exception available to them under Art. 27.2 of the World Trade Organisation TRIPs (Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights) agreement, to reject patent claims for Terminator and Traitor technologies.
Also, using the mandated TRIPs review, Third World governments should also call for expanding the language of Art. 27 of the TRIPs to allow bans against patent claims, not merely on individual plant varieties, but whole technologies applied to plants such as the Terminator.
Such a broad-spectrum approach to order public would create the necessary political space for some governments to insist that intellectual property over 'life' is against national public morality.
The Terminator technology, first identified and so named in March 1998 by RAFI, has as its most obvious feature, the creation of a suicide sequence of exotic genes, triggered by an antibiotic, that renders the seed infertile in the next generation.
There is no agronomic advantage whatsoever in this technology, and its benefit is exclusively for the Gene Giants, who are now involved in agro-chemical (fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides), pharmaceutical, and seed production, as also in the international commodity trades.
A glimpse of the 'new globalisation' process, and garnering of the value added from production to final sale in the hands of a few TNCs based in the North, have been provided in the WTO arbitration award to the US in the banana dispute.
In that dispute, the US claimed a $520-million damage to the Chiquita banana company as a result of an EC banana regime affecting banana imports from Latin American countries, and the banana wholesale marketing business in the EC. The report of the arbitrators, in awarding the US only a $191-million damage, brought out that the US claim included the value of fertilisers, machinery, pesticides, capital and management services (supplied by Chiquita) to banana producers and marketing of the bananas.
The latest batch of patent claims, says RAFI, connects the Terminator's 'suicide sequence' to enhanced herbicide or fertiliser applications - and thereby transfers the costs of sterilisation of seeds (to prevent their being saved and used from the harvested crops) from the company to the farmer. Some of these Terminator-type patent claims seem to reach beyond plants to insects and mammals, while others seem to be aimed at expressly weakening a plant's pest and disease resistance capacity as part of the genetic sterilisation process.
'The ultimate goal appears to be, not to force farmers to buy corporate seeds every year, but to force them to pay for their seeds every year.' This would mean enormous cost savings for the companies and render the commercial merit of aggressive new plant breeding moot.
'Farmers will be trapped in a pattern of biological controls that lead inevitably to bioserfdom,' RAFI adds.
The new technologies, RAFI says, will be dominated by no more than half a dozen TN agro-industrial firms that already control virtually 100% of the biotech transgenic seed market.
'Their ability to insert and externally manipulate vital DNS sequences within crops (and possibly insects and livestock) threatens national sovereignty over agriculture and other biological resources.'
The Traitor technology could expand rapidly to occupy the entire transgenic seed market by 2010, if not sooner, and this 'Traitor seed market' could match 80% or more of the entire global commercial seed market or a sales value of about $20 billion a year.
The real control over the food supply exercised through the control of the seed supply is vastly greater.
The two Terminator technology patents (that issued to the USDA and Monsanto in March 1998, and the one to AstraZeneca in September 1998) prove that it is possible to switch on, or off, specific genes or possibly multi-gene traits by applying whatever external catalyst the company prefers.
Although using the technology to create sterility is the most lucrative possibility, in RAFI's view the same strategy could trigger other traits with other negative implications, a 'market logic backed by recent experience'. Twenty years ago, in an analysis based on a realistic appraisal of the scientific opportunity and commercial tendencies towards reducing costs and maximising profits, RAFI warned that pesticide manufacturers were buying into the seed industry in order to develop plant varieties that could tolerate their patented herbicides. But the analysis was dismissed by both scientific and political institutions.
Within two years of the prediction, however, pesticide manufacturers were openly developing herbicide-tolerant plants. And by 1998, 71% of the croplands sown to transgenic seeds contained herbicide-tolerant traits.
Applying the same analytical logic, RAFI concludes that the Terminator (suicide gene sequence) is one part of what can be most correctly described as Traitor technology. Industry's biotech breeders are focusing on the linkage between the Terminator's ability to sterilise second-generation seed with the technology's ability to promote other 'Traitor' sequences in the first-generation seed.
At one level, Traitor offers the opportunity to load a number of commercial characteristics onto a plant variety (or animal breed) which the company can choose to either activate or de-activate at or after the point of sale. This turns Traitor into a launching pad or platform technology upon which proprietary traits are placed. Farmers can buy seed like an industrialised farmer might buy a tractor - with or without so-called 'value-added' accessories. Depending on what traits the farmer can afford - or what traits the company wants to disclose - external chemical sprays or soakings could activate the purchased qualities in the 'platform' seed.
The Gene Giants want to tie Traitor seed to their proprietary chemicals so that one is useless without the other. Economic and commercial realities point the way clearly to how the technology will evolve.
For the Gene Giants, one of the hurdles in developing 'sterile' seed is the high cost of seed multiplication. One route for dramatically lowering the cost of producing hybrid seed is to create apomictic varieties.
'Apomixis' is a natural, asexual type of reproduction in which plant embryos grow from egg cells without being fertilised by pollen. Apomixis offers a means of cloning plants through seed because the offspring are genetically identical to the mother plant. Apomictic seed is genetically uniform from generation to generation (unlike normal sexual hybrids or open-pollinated varieties). Plant breeders and molecular biologists have successfully transferred the genes that confer apomixis from a wild grass species, Tripsacum dactyloides, to maize.
In 1998, the US Department of Agriculture obtained the first patent on an apomictic maize plant (US Patent No. 5,710,367). CIMMYT (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre in Mexico) and France's ORSTOM (a public agricultural research institute) have also worked jointly over the past decade to develop apomictic maize. The UK's John Innes Centre is also working on apomictic seed production and joining it with externally controllable traits including sterility. In early 1998, the Innes Centre received a patent on its technique (WO 9828431 - 7 Feb 98).
In theory, apomictic seed could offer tremendous benefits to resource-poor farmers because farmers would gain the benefits of so-called 'hybrid vigour' and still be able to save their seed for re-planting. It could theoretically offer fast and flexible plant-breeding strategies that would be responsive to locally targeted breeding needs. But industry breeders have different priorities.
Commercial breeders are eager to patent (or license) apomixis genes and use the technology as a means of lowering the cost of hybrid seed production. If they can successfully combine the benefits of apomixis (the ability to mass-produce low-cost clones) with the Terminator's suicide sequence - it will mean that farmers cannot save seed from apomictic varieties. Will the potential benefits of apomixis be monopolised by the Gene Giants, and ultimately used for precisely the opposite goal (preventing farmers from saving seed) for which it is best suited? RAFI considers this scenario highly likely.
If successfully commercialised, the development of sterile, apomictic hybrids threatens to further reduce genetic diversity in agriculture and increase crop vulnerability for farm communities. The impact on the corporate bottom line, however, will be to reduce production costs in multiplying Traitor 'seed'.
All 29 Traitor Tech patents studied by RAFI trigger 'inducible promoters' to an external chemical catalyst. In the 'index' Terminator, the patent granted to USDA/Delta & Pine Land, the external catalyst is the antibiotic tetracycline. There are biosafety and cost concerns in using massive quantities of antibiotic-soaked seeds in the soil and the food chain, however. It is also a whopping cost that must be initially borne by the company and then passed onto the farmer directly in the price of the seed.
In its second generation, Terminator claims are identifying more subtle ways to transfer catalyst costs from the 'expense' column to the 'profit' column by activating suicide (and other) traits via the sale of proprietary chemicals - preferably the company's own herbicides or insecticides. This only works, however, if the farmer is convinced that it is necessary to trigger the seed's suicide sequence in order to secure other qualities in the harvest.
AstraZeneca's new Verminator II patent can create plants that need continuing exposure to a particular chemical not only for germination; but for continued healthy growth. The precise chemical necessary to avoid plant death depends upon the particular genes involved (AstraZeneca has at least three different promoter systems under patent claim); but the chemically dependent plant must have it in order to survive.
From the company perspective, what could be more 'logical' than mixing the chemical the plant requires with its own pesticides or herbicides? Eventually, as the company's technological ability to manipulate and design inducible promoter systems matures, the plant's chemical dependency might even be on the pesticide or herbicide itself.
This is no anomaly, RAFI suggests.
Between March 1997 and December 1998, Novartis applied for no fewer than 12 closely related Terminator-type patents, which explicitly propose that the suicide sequence within the seed could be triggered by herbicides or even fertilisers. The patents also note that the inducible promoter strategy proposed would have the effect of weakening the plant's natural resistance to pests and diseases.
Novartis, of course, is in the business of manufacturing the chemicals necessary to compensate for the weaknesses it also manufactures. Farmers are sold addict seeds with junkie genes that will not perform well without chemical (or, for that matter, biological) supplements - including the purchase of augmented herbicides that trigger the seed's sterility.
'This is truly Traitor Technology,' RAFI says.
RAFI has found that many of the new Terminator-type patents look far beyond control of seed germination to the control of a wide range of secondary traits. Secondary traits can be of two kinds: first, activating the traits through spraying can improve either the productivity of the crop or the processability of the commodity (the end product). Equally, however, spraying could protect the crop or the commodity from the activation of negative traits - traits that, unless halted, could render the crop unproductive for the farmer or unwelcome to the food processor.
So far, the latter has been the Gene Giant's major objective. Since spraying to de-activate negative or 'traitor' traits can be a great incentive for the farmer, it will be particularly attractive for the company.
Among the traits proposed for control in Novartis' patent claims are:
* Input Traits: Germination; Flowering; Herbicide resistance; Insect resistance;
* Output Traits: Nutritional qualities; Flavour qualities.
Although all the Traitor patents uncovered by RAFI involve external chemical inducers, they do not all confine their targets to plants. One patent, issued to the University of Texas (US Patent #5,846,768 granted 8 December 1998), suggests that the inventors could activate a dormant suicide trait in insect pests by later spraying the crop with almost any chemical they can link to an inducible promoter. Indeed, the sequence could even trigger suicide through 'natural causes' - changed climatic conditions, for example.
The Texas researchers refer to their invention - actually a gene from a fly, as the 'GRIM protein'. (Not to be out-morbidised, AstraZeneca, which received its Verminator II patent (US Patent #5,808,034) on 15 September 1998, talks proudly of its 'killer genes'. The company concedes that its technique is 'not desirable per se...').
At one level, Traitor offers the opportunity to load a number of commercial
characteristics onto a plant variety (or animal breed) which the company can choose to either activate or de-activate at or after the point of sale. This turns Traitor into a launching pad or platform technology upon which proprietary traits are placed. Farmers can buy seed like an industrialised farmer might buy a tractor - with or without so-called 'value-added' accessories. Depending on what traits the farmer can afford - or what traits the company wants to disclose - external chemical sprays or soakings could activate the purchased qualities in the 'platform' seed.
The Gene Giants want to tie Traitor seed to their proprietary chemicals so that one is useless without the other. Economic and commercial realities point the way clearly to how the technology will evolve. - Third World Network Features
About the writer: Chakravarthi Raghavan is Chief Editor of SUNS (South-North Development Monitor), a daily bulletin, and Third World Network's representative in Geneva.