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Destructive Consequences of "Controlling Plant Gene Expression" or "TERMINATOR" Technology for Food Security and Biodiversity

by Farhad Mazhar


INTRODUCTION

The "Terminator" is now the common name, as dubbed by the activists around the world, taking clue from the well known Canadian organization Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), for the so called "Control of Plant Gene Expression" technology. The "New Plant Gene Expression Techniques/Technologies" is the "official" term used in Conference of the Parties to the Convention of Biological Diversity and Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA). Experts reporting on the assessment of the technology to the Secretariat of SBSTTA used the term "Genetic Use Restriction Technology" or GURT. They have, however, distinguished between two types of GURT: control of gene expression at the variety level (V-GURT) and at the trait level (T-GURT). The term terminator was originally tagged for the first one. However, we will use this term "terminators" for both because it captures the immanent evil of the genetic engineering as practiced by transnational corporations. Monsanto owned variety level genetic use-restriction technology, backed up by US government as their broader economic, technological and military strategy to control and concentrate world resources in there own hand, particularly the biological resources of the third world countries like Bangladesh, has become the Satanic symbol of the world. The idea to terminate or destroy the self generating capacity of the biological nature with the sole objective to assert control and command over the biological world for greed and profit is indeed portrays a very dark future for majority of the world communities.

In March 1998 US Patent and Trademark Office granted the US patent no. 5,723,765 to Delta and Pine Land and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The technology was characterized by the patent applicant as "Control of Plant Gene Expression". The patent was published at WIPO (The World Intellectual Property Organization - WO 9604393). According to WIPO the patent is pending in more than 78 countries around the world. For example: Australia (AU 9532050), Canada (CA 2196410), the European Patent Office (EP 775212) and South Africa. In May 11, 1998, before the 4th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the agribusiness giant Monsanto acquires Delta and Pine Land and Dekalb Plant Genetics, adding $US 4.3 billion to its merger bill.

Assessing the bizarre nature of this genetic engineering, a technique by which the maturing seed of a plant kills or terminates its own ability to reproduce or regenerate, the popular organizations around the world working for food security, environment, biodiversity, people's health and other crucial areas tagged this adventurous result into genetic suicide as "terminator". The name prevailed because it captured the imagination of the people around the world making them aware of the imminent danger of biological destruction. Because of its potential destructive capacity some people also called it "neutron bomb" for the biological world.

Terminators are no advance in agronomic achievement and indeed adds no value to agriculture. Its sole purpose is to force farmers to return back to the transnational corporations through the mediation of the commercial seed market every year. Seeds are genetically programmed to mature, but sterile. For the patent-holders, it is a biological guarantee that farmers are technologically forced to buy seed every planting season.

If commercialized, this technology will have a series of serious consequences for the food security, agriculture and agricultural biodiversity, health and environment, and livelihoods of millions of farmers in countries like Bangladesh. For thousands of years farmers saved seeds to replant in the next season, and thus initiated the cycle of agrarian production. They have exchanged, developed, innovated and improved seeds and germplasms through trials and errors. Every farming household, particularly the biodiversity-based production systems as prevailing in Bangladesh, is indeed research stations. The genius of farming communities generate profound knowledge in seed conservation, regeneration and innovation, and constitute a livelihood in Bangladesh, rich in cultural diversity and diverse coping mechanism with complex deltaic eco-systems. The "terminator" technology aims to destroy the very basis of the agrarian civilizations all over the world, a civilization that evolved over thousands of years. Destroying farming communities by terminating farmers' capacity and command over agrarian production through seeds, the transnational companies like Monsanto, Zeneca, Novartis, AgroEvo, Dupont and Dow, competing between them for the terminator technologies, would like to concentrate the seed and food production of the world in their hand, making the whole of the world humanity dependent on them.

The technology was first jointly developed and patented by the US Department of Agriculture and US seed company Delta and Pine Land. Its inventors have explicitly targeted millions of farmers of the gene-rich South who now save seeds from one season to the next. In a recent interview with RAFI, the USDA spokesman, William Phelps, explained that USDA wants this technology to be "widely licensed and made expeditiously available to many seed companies". The purpose is clearly, according to Mr. Phelps, "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". Once the technology is commercialized, the USDA will earn royalties of about 5% of net sales. According to Mr. William Phelps, "I think it will be profitable for USDA".

After the patent Monsanto bought the proprietary rights, and the technology is now the property of Monsanto. In its attempt to create market for its own proprietary technology in countries like Bangladesh where farmers can not pay high price for the technology and have strong tradition to save seed, Monsanto is attempting aggressively to build alliances with micro-credit institutions and NGOs, such as Grameen Bank. Although the people's movement around the world, effectively resisted the initial attempt to build such alliance between Monsanto and Grameen Bank, Bangladesh is vulnerable to such unholy assault. There is already a strong history of alliance between TNC's and global "mohajans" of credits. Grameen and BRAC have been introducing imported hybrid maize for the last few years. In the rice sector the alliances between BRAC and ACI (that holds the interests of Zeneca, Indo-American Hybrid Seed-Bangalore, ProAgro Seed Company and others) is fully on the swing. Immediately after the flood of last year BRAC aggressively promoted AALOK 6201, a hybrid rice variety from ACI (Advanced Chemical Industries Limited). Farmers had to accept credit and pay very high interest, but at the same time had to accept the proprietary technology of ACI. ACI head office is located in the main BRAC office in Dhaka.

Hybrids are not same as "terminators". These are two different technologies. Nevertheless, the technological end results have the same effects on the farmers with regard to seed saving practice. Farmers can not save hybrid seeds and are made to repurchase seed every year from the company with very high price. This is possible in many cases only with the credit money received from micro-credit institutions. To the creditor organization, in this case BRAC and Grameen, farmers pay very high interest. Creditors and the suppliers of the hybrid seeds are the same organizations. So, farmers are made to purchase proprietary technologies of TNC's.with the little money they borrowed from the same organization in the name of "poverty alleviation". Farmers are increasingly being indebted, in addition to the erosion of their self-sustaining production systems and loss of seed from the household. Perceiving the economic and ecological disaster of this "poverty alleviation" hybrids are also gaining name in Bangladesh as 'terminators'. Any technology that aims to destroy the capacity and the tradition of the farmers to save seeds at the household level, is terminator, since it terminates the very livelihood of the farming communities. The name is not unjustified because of the joint promotion of hybrid seed aggressively by TNC's and micro-credit institutions, particularly immediately after the 1998 flood of Bangladesh.

According to the experts of SBSTTA: "Application of these technologies has some substantial similarities to the use of hybrids in view of the need of farmers to purchase new seed for each planting season. However, the ability to prevent not only true-to-type propagation but in fact, germination, and the ability to introduce this trait into most species of plants irrespective of their breeding system, makes these technologies radically different in mechanism, scope and implications".

[See GENETIC USE RESTRICTION TECHNOLOGIES: Technical Assessment of the Set of New Technologies which Sterilize or Reduce the Agronomic Value of Second Generation Seed, as Exemplified by U.S. Patent No. 5,723,765, and WO 94/03619. Expert paper prepared for the Secretariat (SBSTTA) on 30 April 1999, by Richard A. Jefferson, Author-in-Chief and Don Byth, Carlos Correa, Gerardo Otero, Calvin Qualset. Available at http://www.biodiv.org/sbstta4/docs-e.html.]

We are concerned here about "terminator" technologies, not hybrids. However, the emerging scenario in Bangladesh is very important to keep in mind to anticipate imminent dangers we are going to face very soon. The aggressive marketing of hybrid seeds and the BRAC-ACI (Zeneca, Indo-American Hybrids) alliance demonstrates how farmers of the countries like Bangladesh are targeted by transnational corporation for their products. It's not only the target that are important to understand here. The strategy of creating effective demand in a poor country through micro-credit institutions is of very serious concern in Bangladesh case. It is getting clear that Hybrid seed marketing is a test exercise so that terminators can follow smoothly.

If hybrids and terminators have potentially the same negative effects with regard to eliminating the practice of farmers in saving seeds at the household levels, why TNCs are investing aggressively in this new technology? The answer lies in the emerging regimes of intellectual property rights, particularly the legally binding regimes of TRIPS (Trade Related Aspect of Intellectual Property Rights). The hybrid technology is not a patented technology, like terminators. The countries like Bangladesh can develop their own hybrid technology and may keep the technology available in the public domain. Farmers can have access to this technology as they have to HYVs from National Agricultural Research Centers, without paying high cost or royalty to any transnational companies. This was exactly the point raised by the scientists of Bangladesh from Bangladesh Rice Research Institute. They seriously opposed and questioned the motives of introduction of AALOK 6201 and couple of other hybrid rice variety from India. The same is not true in case of terminator technologies. According to TRIPS, both product and the process can be patented, and TNCs are taking full advantage of the new trade regimes to concentrate economic power in their hand, targeting the poor of the third world, through micro-credit operation. The economic and technological implications of the terminator technologies, or for that matter any new technology in our time coming from the North should be judged in the context of the emerging rights in intellectual property, the rights that are going to be implemented by WTO. The patented technologies will remain beyond the reach of Bangladesh, not only in terms of the price of the product, but also in terms any possibility of technology transfer. The process and the product will remain solely in the hand of TNCs.

On the other hand it is a technology that is not dependent on any IPR regime to ensure the profit for the company. The end users, the farmers, will have to be back to the company to purchase seeds every year, whether propritary technologies are protected by strong IPR or not. The legal protection has been turned into technological safeguard.

CONVENTION ON BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY & SBSTTA

We gathered in this workshop organized by IUCN in order to prepare for the 4th meeting of Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA-4) to be held in Canada between 21-25 June 1999. One of the agenda of the SBSTTA-4 is to discuss the consequences of the terminator technologies, i.e.

Consequences of the New Plant Gene Expression Technologies. The 4th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP-4), in paragraph 11 of decision IV/6, adopted a resolution requesting the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA), to consider and assess terminator technology. The resolution reads: "The Conference of the Parties, Reiterating the precautionary approach, requests SBSTTA, [its Scientific and Technical body] to consider and assess, in light of contributions to be provided by Parties, Governments and organizations, whether there are any consequences for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity from the development and use of new technology for the control of plant gene expression, such as that described in United States patent 5723765, and to elaborate scientifically based advice to the Conference of the Parties. Moreover, urges Parties, Governments as well as civil society and public and private institutions to consider the precautionary approach in its application."

The expert group to SBSTTA has already submitted their report. According to the expert group to SBSTTA, "The greatest potential risks to food security associated with wide adoption of V-GURTs (acronym for Variety-level Genetic Use Restriction Technologies, that is, "terminator") may be the increased dependence on seed production and distribution by a few commercial suppliers and the vulnerability of such supply to disruption, either civil or environmental." Once the farmers lose their variety and adopt few transgenic and other patented varieties of the TNC's the implication for biodiversity and genetic resources could be severe.

The crop plants and varieties that we see in our agricultural fields are in many cases, bear little resemblance to the original plants from which they have evolved. Generations of farmers who, initially in the centers of genetic diversity of these plants, like Bangladesh, select plants and plant populations carefully for uses and characters well beyond those that had initially made these plants fit enough to survive natural selection. It took many generations of farmers to have produced major crop plants through a lengthy domestication process. It required ingenuity and inventiveness, and most importantly very sharp observation and constant care. It is amazing if we simply keep in mind that there were at least 15,000 varieties of rice in Bangladesh. Many plant varieties are unable to survive in nature without the intense care and nurturing provided by the farming community within their existing agricultural practice. This has occurred because farmers retained plants that had "value," that is, met their individual and community needs, such as food, fiber, fuel, or construction materials for house, etc. The diversity of need, coupled with diverse cultural practices, contributed to the profound diversity of the farming households. The need is also determined by local environment and eco-system. It is well known to the scientists and experts that these diverse manifestation of genetic variability, the gene expression, were often realized by dramatic modifications in the morphology and physiology of the plants obtained through lengthy and iterative processes of plant breeding and adaptation by farming communities through repetitive selection of desirable traits which could result from unexpected mutations or combinations of genotypes. These new combinations were evaluated in new environments, and their robustness and performance in these environments took again long time. The various experiment and the experience gained with new variety determined their desirability to farmers. Genetic transformations thus achieved were hereditary, the result of a complex process of experimentation and adaptation that has evolved not only the variety itself, but the knowledge system of the farming community as well, including the skill to produce that particular variety. Genes that were faithfully copied from generation to generation gave stability to the expression of the desired traits. Farmers could identify the predictability of traits in selected varieties. It ensured securityfor the farmer who could depend on the realization of a successful harvest using selected seeds planted from the previous crop.

Farmers valued their seeds and exchanged within and between their communities in order to ensure the continuity of their innovations. As the seeds moved into new environment and into new communities with different skills and knowledge the plants faced new challenge at various levels: ecological, cultural, technical and available knowledge of the community. Again they saved or selected seeds from plants or plant communities that performed well, and which produced the needed crop products. The same variety evolved differently with different ecological and cultural environment. In the course of such practice some genetic changes were 'fixed', while other genetic combinations that did not perform well were discarded and not propagated; the phenomenon, known as genetic adaptation, is the basis for the vast diversity now seen in a single crop species. This genetic diversity is the basis for further adaptations to other environments and to changing environmental conditions including climatic, edaphic and those resulting from changing farming systems and cropping patterns. The high-yielding varieties of green revolution have already caused severe genetic erosion in agriculture. Both hybrid and the transgenic varieties, coupled with aggressive marketing of TNC - microcredit collaboration, have all the destructive features to destroy the last remnants of agricultural biodiversity, and the destruction may be irreversible to a point where world humanity may not be able to return.

Technologies that control gene expressions or have in-built genetic use restriction are not limited only to the US patent 5723765 as hinted earlier. Zeneca, the new identity of the old Imperial Chemical Industries of UK, has developed similar seed killer technology activated by chemical. Zeneca's seed killer has been dubbed by the popular organizations and media as "verminator". Zeneca is competing with Monsanto. The Advanced Chemical Industries Limited, ACI, the promoter of hybrid rice 6201, represents Zeneca's interest in Bangladesh and working hand in hand with BRAC. According to analysts, "Zeneca Biosciences (UK) is vying with the "Monster' (Monsanto) to become Top Cat in global seed industry even if it means playing cat and mouse with farmers and destroying their age-old practice of saving and breeding crop varieties" (see Resurgence, Issue No 97, Sept 98). Zeneca is currently the world's fifth largest seed company with annual sales of US$437 million 1997. It is also heavily engaged in chemical, pesticide and drugs. According to Pat Mooney of RAFI, the organization that first exposed the Terminator patent, "the Verminator is a broader and more pervasive variation on the Monster's Terminator."

The expert Group to SBSTTA has identified two types of "genetic use restriction technologies", that can cause genetic transformation through genetic switch mechanism preventing "unauthorized use", mainly the farming communities, of the variety itself or the traits associated with the variety. The former type of technology is termed as Variety-level Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (V-GURTs) and the latter is Trait-specific Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (T-GURTs).

The question arises, couldn't the companies prevent unauthorized use or multiplication of the seeds through the patent regime or implementation of TRIPs or strict intellectual property rights. International debates around the intellectual property rights are tilting towards the consideration that the farmers' must enjoy the historical privilege to save seeds for replanting. National laws on plant variety protection in third world countries are seriously considering retaining this privilege of the farming community as against the breeders' rights or patent rights for company seeds. It is clear that the GURTs are targeted to undermine this legal option to protect the interest of the third world agriculture. The legal uncertainties to control and command the seed sector have been overcome by technological means. This is an interesting example of how genetic engineering is used in the capitalist world market, where greed, monopolization and domination is the only rule of the game.

According to the expert group, "Crop species likely to be targeted for using V-GURTs would likely be those for which hybrids are either not feasible, not readily accessible to the private sector or not highly effective; these will typically be moderate to high value, in-breeding seed crops, e.g. rice, wheat, soybean, cotton, etc. Targeted markets for V-GURTs are likely to be those in which either plant-back of farm saved seed is widely practiced, or those in which increased seed costs associated with added value traits would encourage 'pirating' or free-riding."

In case of the T-GURTS, the experts feel that compared to V-GURTS, farmers, who are ready, to pay royalties for the use of proprietary technologies of the TNC's they may enjoy some limited freedom to activate the trait of the variety.

The expert group clearly advised to SBSTTA, and through SBSTTA to the Parties to Convention on Biological Diversity that, "The role of public sector research and development in providing a viable, competitive alternative for public-good applications should be seriously expanded, if priorities of food security in less developed countries, maintenance of biological diversity and enhancement of environmental health in the medium-to-long-term are to be accommodated. Critical enabling technologies that are necessary to provide such biotechnological alternatives for neglected crops or problems, or for use in developing countries, must be accessible through licensing or through development of alternative methodologies for which freedom to operate can be secured. Where necessary, compulsory licensing of such bottleneck technologies for certain public-good applications may be considered appropriate…In many countries, existing domestic regulatory mechanisms could be adapted for restricting or preventing the use of V-GURTs - should that be desired.". The last advice echoes the popular demand around the world to ban "terminators". It is important to note, according to the expert group, "the Patent legislation is an irrelevant mechanism by which to discourage use of these technologies. Invalidating patents on V-GUR Technologies, without simultaneously restricting their use, is likely to have the opposite to the desired effect, and actually could stimulate their use commercially."

Given the aggressive marketing of TNC's and the emerging alliance with micro-credit institutions, the economic coercion to accept hybrid or in the coming future, the transgenic varieties will have serious consequences for biodiversity and genetic resources for Bangladesh. It has also serious implication for search and development of public sector, where most of our scientist is located. The financial and institutional opportunities to alter the genetic makeup of crop species through combining land races with improved varieties are limited and will be concentrated mainly in the hands of transnational corporations. The traditional and current practices of enhancing genetic diversity and valuable research and contribution in formal and/or participatory breeding will be seriously jeopardized.

The expert groups felt strongly that to evaluate these features of new technology require frameworks for policy making but that are rarely present or poorly articulated in most national and regional programs. In determining the desirability of these innovations a country must first determine what type of agriculture and what type of socio-economic development is desired. Where lies the national interest of Bangladesh? Economic and social equity is the primary or major issue, but at the same time where lies the relative advantage of science, knowledge and human resources of Bangladesh. The richness, complexity and the diversity of the local and indigenous knowledge is the valuable asset from where Bangladesh build up her research capacity with the active participation of the farming communities. It will be suicidal for Bangladesh to erode the biodiversity based production system and the knowledge and cultural practices that can ensure livelihood for the millions.

The terminator technology and the general trend of genetic engineering are obvious example of application of science that is not socially equitable, environmentally sound and sustainable in agriculture? Short-term recovery of profit at the expense of long-term strategic research and development is aimed in this trend. Such technology will not allow or stimulate the active participation and innovative potential of small to medium enterprise, not to mention the small and medium farmers. It will definitely tend towards continued consolidation of power in a few entities. In the case of Bangladesh they are transnational corporations and large corporate NGOs. These technologies are ethically unacceptable and socially undesirable. They have the potential to destroy the livelihood, ecological fabric and the economic base of the farming communities, the developers and custodians of the world's agricultural genetic heritage and natural resource base. Given the striking decline of public funding for agricultural research for the greater public good, the genetic engineering technologies, eager to make quick profit for few transnational, will dry up the last drop of valuable research funds by shifting the priority and the social objectives. Bangladesh may be forced to close their research institutions.

CGIAR REJECTS TERMINATOR

The Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) is a global network of 16 international agricultural research centres. A mainstream global collective of formal research. Among the various activities plant breeding is a major area. The CGIAR in the face of the mounting protest around the world against terminators issued the following policy statement: "The CGIAR will not incorporate into its breeding materials any genetic systems designed to prevent seed germination. This is in recognition of (a) concerns over potential risks of its inadvertent or unintended spread through pollen; (b) the possibilities of sale or exchange of inviable seed for planting; (c) the importance of farm-saved seed, particularly to resource-poor farmers; (d) potential negative impacts on genetic diversity and (e) the importance of farmer selection and breeding for sustainable agriculture." This is very significant that terminators - and related genetic seed sterilization technology - has been banned from the crop breeding programs of the world's largest international agricultural research network.

The adoption of the CGIAR policy to ban terminators was not difficult. It was only Canada's delegate who expressed reservations about the policy in the discussion ensued after Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, the chair of CGIAR's Genetic Resources Policy Committee and World Food Prize recipient, presented the anti-Terminator proposal to all the delegates at the meeting in its final hours. The Ugandan delegate said that the Terminator was a concern at the highest political level in his country. Representatives from Zimbabwe, India, UK, and the Netherlands also made statements favoring the anti-Terminator policy.

The reasons to reject Terminators are important. The reasons proposed by CGIAR has also implications for hybrid seeds as well. Among the five reasons, the three reasons are equally applicable for hybrid seeds. They are: (1) the importance of farm-saved seed, particularly to resource-poor farmers; (2) potential negative impacts on genetic diversity and (3) the importance of farmer selection and breeding for sustainable agriculture. The issue of biosafety risks of inadvertent spread through pollen and the possible sale or exchange of inviable seed for planting are two added concern with regard to Terminators.

CONCLUSION

It is clear that the people of Bangladesh will have to resist terminator technologies, or for that matter any technology that aims to destroy the foundation of agriculture only to assert monopoly control and domination. It is imperative in order ensure food security and agricultural biodiversity as well as to survive in an world of inequitable structures of production and distribution. Bangladesh must learn to critically look into new technologies, particularly genetic engineering. These technologies, just because they are the products of molecular biology or advanced disciplines of science, are not necessarily "advanced". The knowledge and the historical practice of the farmers of Bangladesh can offer multiple clues for the direction science and technology of Bangladesh could take, taking full advantage of the advance in human knowledge and scientific practice as well as of participation of the farming communities. Higher forms of knowledge or wisdom are not necessarily high-tech applications and process, often patented by TNCs.

The popular organizations working with the farmers and defending the interest of the third world countries are already campaigning to ban terminators, verminators and similar technologies, aiming to destroy the basis of our agriculture. In the SBSTTA, Bangladesh will have allies, who are very much concerned about the trends in genetic engineering and should remain, in the right camp to face the inevitable pressure from USA and other Northern countries desperate to impose their commercial interest, against the interest of the majority population of the world.

The success of the popular organizations in creating wide spread awareness against terminators and bringing the issue at the center of discussion of CBD is very encouraging. Terminators are not in the market yet, and it will still take few years to be available. In this context the proactive strategy of the popular organizations also shows the strength of networking that must continue. The fight against the Terminator, and all technologies that jeopardize food security for profit will be a long one. In the case of Bangladesh the struggle for food security is becoming increasingly a battle against the Lords of Poverty, the micro-credit institutions, that are engaged aggressively in creating effective demand for the TNC's proprietary technologies. This is where we should also concentrate our struggle.

The farming communities of Bangladesh are no fool. Realizing the similar implication from their end of both the terminators and the hybrid seeds, they have extended the meaning to include hybrids as well.

It is indeed interesting to observe how discourse empowers the popular movements. The term "Terminator" is an example.

[Presented at the "Pre-SBSTTA-4 Consultative Workshop" organized by IUCN, 25 May 1999] Contact: Farhad Mazhar, UBINIG, 5/3 Barabo Mahanpur, Ring Road, Shaymoli Dhaka-1207 BANGLADESH, Tel: +880-2-811465, Fax: +880-2-813065, Email: ubinig@citechco.net (June 02, 1999)

 


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