by Danielle Knight

Washington, 5 Oct. 99 (IPS) -- Monsanto, the US seed and pesticide giant at the forefront of the debate over genetically modified food, has decided not to market its so-called 'terminator' technology which ensures crops produce sterile seeds.

[Welcomed by non-governmental organizations, Monsanto's announcement is however much less than made out -since Monsanto has said it would continue research into sterilized seeds, while the terminator technology was developed by the US government department of agriculture and, the company Delta and Pine Land (which Monsanto has been trying to take over) that owns the technology, have said they would continue their research.]

The terminator, officially labelled as a 'Technology Protection System,' became a major target in the debate over agricultural biotechnology.

Monsanto and other companies stood to make huge profits from the technique since it meant that farmers could not continue holding over the seeds produced in one growing season for use in the next - a widespread practice in most developing countries.

Despite its announcement Monday not to commercialise the terminator technology, Monsanto said it would continue to research seed sterility within its broader research programme on biotechnology.

Still non-governmental organisations (NGOs), who had campaigned against development of the terminator, regarded Monsanto's climbdown as a victory for civil society's fight for food security.

"It's very significant," said Hope Shand, research director for the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a Canadian organisation that first drew attention to the technology.

"Terminator technology has become synonymous with corporate greed and even Monsanto, with all its public relations people, could not put a positive spin on sterilized seed," she told IPS.

Greenpeace, one of the most outspoken opponents to biologically engineered food also praised the announcement but noted that Monsanto would continue research into various aspects and applications of seed sterility.

"This is a positive first step but Monsanto is missing the overall picture," said Charles Margulis, a genetic engineering campaigner with the environmental organisation.

Monsanto is the second major "Gene Giant" to back away from terminator technology. In June, the British-based AstraZeneca company announced that it would not commercialize seed sterility technologies.

Monsanto's announcement, made in a letter from Robert B. Shapiro, chairman of Monsanto, to Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation - a major donor of agricultural research projects in developing countries.

Conway had earlier urged Monsanto's board of directors to steer clear of the technology since hostility toward the 'Terminator' had grown significantly. The governments of India and Zimbabwe, for example, banned the use of such technology as did the World Bank's Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

At an international conference on agricultural biotechnology held in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1998 Monsanto was lambasted by more than 350 government and NGO delegates.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the well-being of 1.4 billion poor people in Third World countries depended on farm-saved seed for their food security.

"If they can't save seed, they can't continue to adapt crops to their unique farming environments, and that spells disaster for global food security," said Pat Mooney, executive director of RAFI.

The terminator technology - named after the robotic killer in a movie of the same name - is not actually owned by Monsanto but was jointly developed by the US Department of Agriculture and Delta and Pine Land Company, a cotton company that Monsanto has been trying to take over for more than a year.

Since Delta and Pine Land is to continue research into the technology as long as it remained independent, some critics questioned the effect of Monsanto's announcement in the biotechnological sphere.

Monsanto has been trying to back away from the controversy since April. It held a series of discussions on the terminator technology with customers, critics, researchers and regulators worldwide.

Jeff Bergau, spokesman for Monsanto in Chicago, told IPS that Monday's announcement was a direct result of these consultations.

"We thought it was important to make this announcement before the merger with Delta Pine since globally people have an interest in this issue," he said.

But critics remained concerned that in the letter to Conway, Shapiro said the company was not forswearing all future use of techniques that "turn on and off" a particular inserted genetic trait - such as resistance to pests or enhanced vitamin content - after one season.

Such a trait could be activated or deactivated by using an external chemical "inducer" - mixed with patented pesticides or fertilizers produced by the same company.

Many biotechnology companies, including Novartis and Dupont, continue to research such types of seed sterility as part of a broader research on biologically engineering seeds to turn off particular traits. Many patents involving biologically engineered seed mention such sterility.

"Engineered seed sterility is not an isolated research agenda," warned Mooney, who said every major seed and agrochemical enterprise is developing its own version of sterilised seeds.

Early in the new century, farmers could be forced to plant seeds that produce crops only if sprayed with a carefully prescribed chemical regime that included a patented pesticide, fertilizer or herbicide, warned RAFI.

Zeneca, the UK seed giant, for example, has developed a technology that would render its crops from its seeds stunted or impaired if not regularly exposed to certain patented chemicals sold by the company, according to Mooney.

US-based Monsanto also has applied for a patent on a technology that would make a seed not germinate unless exposed to a certain chemical, he said. And the Swiss firm, Novartis has received a patent for a technique that regulates a number of developmental processes in plants - including germination, sprouting, flowering and fruit ripening.

"If the companies can genetically program seeds to perform only with the application of proprietary pesticide or fertilizer, it means they will increase sales of their patented agrochemicals and other inputs," noted Edward Hammond, a researcher at RAFI.

While Monsanto argues that farmers have the choice not to buy genetically altered seed, researchers worry that some governments may force farmers to buy the technology.

Camila Montecinos, an agronomist with the Chilean-based Centre for Education and Technology, said last year that even if farmers did not buy the new seed, if these crops were planted in nearby fields, farmers could find that some of their non-terminator seeds were infertile because of cross-pollination.

"When farmers reach into their bins to sow seeds the following season they could discover - too late - that some of their seeds are sterile," said Montecinos. (SUNS4524)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS) .