The explosion in genetic research and engineering has handed scientists and corporations the tools for redefining life -- and now death, at least for seeds. The latest technology popping out of the box (brought to you by Monsanto, the promoter of bovine growth hormone for dairy cows) kills the seeds of plants. Dubbed the "Terminator" technology, it would cause genetically altered crops like rice, wheat, cotton and soybeans to yield only sterile seeds.
Terminator threatens to end a time-honored practice, stretching back thousands of years to the dawn of agriculture, of farmers gathering and saving seeds for next year's bounty. Instead, farmers would be forced to purchase the seeds for every new crop from the giant seed merchants, an industry that has witnessed enormous mergers and consolidation during this past decade.
"Genetic seed sterilization is an immoral technology," charges Hope Shand, the Research Director for the Rural Advancement Foundation International, or RAFI. Headquartered in Winnepeg, Canada, and with offices in North Carolina, RAFI promotes agricultural biodiversity, global food security and conservation practices. "The Terminator," says Shand, "brings no agronomic benefits to consumers or farmers. It will not improve yields or the quality of crops. It only increases industry profits."
The seed-killer technology has already received an OK from the U.S. patent office, and Monsanto and other international agbiz companies are seeking similar agreements in more than 80 foreign countries. But before the Terminator appears in your local seed store or catalogue, it must weather the intense storm of controversy swirling around its development.
Jack Kloppenburg, author of "First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492-2000," estimates that as much as 60 to 70 percent of our food already contains genetically altered ingredients. From potato chips, to popcorn, to ice cream, to baby food, we are eating it. Genetically altered crops producing common staples like soybean oil, high-fructose corn syrup, soy animal feed, cannola oil or dairy foods (produced with bovine growth hormone) are part of the brave new techno diet.
"We are all eating this stuff that we have never encountered before," says Kloppenburg. "We simply don't know what all these things are going to do. We are putting thousands of new combinations into millions of acres and exposing this to trillions of organisms."
As farmers harvest this year's crops, consumers and others are raising concerns about the attempts of multinational agribusiness companies to "improve" on Mother Nature. What are the risks associated with genetically altered crops? Are agribusiness companies driven by a desire to make farming easier, or to make farmers more dependent on agribusiness? What right does anyone have to program plants to produce sterile seeds -- in short, to kill themselves?
Frankenfoods, as some critics call the new breed of biotech plants, are causing indigestion abroad. Across the Atlantic, rumblings of a trade war sound over the European public's opposition to genetically modified food and America's agbiz-driven food-policy agenda. The European Union has stopped buying genetically engineered corn grown in America. Major European supermarket chains and fast-food vendors (like McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King) have vowed not to use or sell biotech foodstuffs. New genetically modified crops destined for European fields have been blocked by Italy, Greece, Denmark, France and Luxembourg.
In Japan, the Kirin Brewery announced that beginning in 2001 they will use only corn that has not been genetically modified. South Korea might buy its corn from China because of concerns. Mexico's biggest tortilla maker, Grupo Maseca, has said they don't want genetically altered corn. U.S. baby-food makers Gerber and H.J. Heinz recently startled the biotechnology biz with their pledge not to use genetically altered soy or corn.
More extreme reactions have also occurred. In England, California, and Minnesota small groups of activists uprooted fields of genetically engineered crops. Angry farmers in India torched stands of Monsanto's genetically altered crops as part of a "Cremate Monsanto" campaign.
With many commodity prices at 10-year lows, these developments have jolted American farmers who expected to export about a third of their crops. Some farmers are finding large grain exporters, like Archer Daniels Midland, refusing to take genetically altered corn and offering to pay 18 cents more per bushel for conventional soybeans.
Against this backdrop of unrest, the Terminator has come to symbolize the reshaping of agriculture into an image defined by Monsanto and other professed "life science" companies.
Public awareness of the Terminator's roots are recent. In March 1998, patent No. 5,723,765 -- Control of Plant Gene Expression -- was awarded to Delta and Pine Land Company in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which actually invented the seed-killing technique). Delta and Pine Land (a major cotton seed breeder and marketer based in Mississippi) signed an agreement with the USDA to develop the new technology and share royalties with the federal government. Delta has since been purchased by Monsanto for $1.76 billion.
The patent notice came RAFI's way in the form of a news release, recalls Shand. In the news release, the USDA blandly described its development as a "technology protection system." Shand viewed it differently. "Our concern is for world food security," she says. "When I realized that this was a technology aimed at preventing farmers from saving their seeds, the alarm bells went off."
RAFI responded with a campaign spotlighting the seed killer. They began calling it the Terminator, a name that stuck. Their publicity efforts sparked widespread international concern and landed the issue on the 1998 list of top 10 censored stories complied by Project Censored, which has highlighted for more than 20 years the world's most important but underreported stories.
The growing din over Terminator technology has left Monsanto tightlipped. Company officials declined to comment for this story, instead referring information requests to scanty details on their website. The USDA's Sandy Miller Hays admits "surprise" at the level of controversy. "I don't think I have ever seen a technology generate this type of discussion," Hays says.
It was the USDA's Melvin Oliver, a Lubbock, Texas-based researcher, who dreamed up the seed-sterility scheme. Oliver's biotechnology brainchild occurred during the middle of the night when he realized he could splice into a plant's genetic structure genes that would kill the seed's embryo late in development but not impair the stems, roots, leaves, flowers or other plant growths.
Oliver had one pesky puzzle left to solve: How to grow fertile seeds from the genetically engineered plants for bagging and sale to farmers? His solution was to make the seed-killing genes come alive only after a chemical was externally applied to the seeds that turned on the sterility genes. A company could then grow as many generations of the plant as they needed for seed production, chemically wash the seeds and kill any future generations.
Oliver's approach inserts three new genes into the plant; two are from bacteria and the third from another plant. The chemical of choice for activating the terminator genes is the common antibiotic tetracycline. His lab experiments have thus far successfully worked with tobacco and cotton.
Hays defends the USDA's involvement with such research as a way to encourage seed companies to develop new varieties and prevent what a USDA fact sheet on the matter calls "unwanted germination." "The problem," Hays contends, "is if farmers brown bag the [new] seed after the first year, a company cannot recover its investment."
"The Terminator is the seed companies' holy grail," says Kloppenburg. "They want farmers there every year." He rips the USDA for engaging in research with little agronomic benefit. "It's appalling, a travesty," he says. "Why don't they move competitiveness genes into plants so they can outcompete weeds, or why don't they figure out why dandelions keep coming up in your lawn?" he asks.
Kloppenburg's book "First the Seed" documents how companies have been seeking approval for seed patenting since the 1890s. The seed business accelerated in the 1930s with the development of hybrid methods. Hybrids, such as the many corn varieties, possess their own self-limiting effects. Though their seeds remain viable, yields from second-generation crops typically shrink by at least 10 percent.
The 1930s were also a time of vigorous debate in Congress over plant patenting. The passage in 1935 of the Plant Varieties Protection Act limited patenting of plants to mostly ornamentals, like roses, but drew the line at food crops. But in 1982, the Supreme Court rejected the limit and ruled that anything under the sun created by biotechnology was patentable.
With more than half a billion acres under the plow, wheat is the planet's most widely cultivated crop; rice is not far behind with nearly 375 million acres grown each year. Rice, wheat and other self-pollinating crops like soybeans and cotton have proven immune to hybridization and are the likely targets for Terminator development.
"I think this is an utter disaster for the Third World," says Kloppenburg. "It's extremely threatening to Third World farmers."
Shand echoes Kloppenburg's concerns. She fears that the Terminator will destroy agriculture for the 1.4 billion farmers who depend primarily on farm-saved seed. "It's a way of life," she says, and one that protects agricultural biodiversity through the use of plants adapted to the local weather and soil conditions.
Even U.S. farmers still rely on farm-saved seeds for certain crops. As much as 20 to 30 percent of all soybean fields in the Midwest are typically planted with saved seeds. U.S. and Canadian wheat farmers commonly use farm-saved wheat seeds and return to the commercial market only periodically.
Shand predicts the global seed companies will muscle their Terminators into Third World markets by working with banks and governments to require use of the seeds as a condition of credit. She mentions this has already happened with other seed varieties in the Philippines, Chili, Indonesia, Zimbabwe and Brazil.
Genetically modified plants have already gobbled up a huge portion of U.S. crop production. Corn and cotton have been altered with the addition of a gene that produces Bt, a moth-killing insecticide. Roundup Ready Soybeans possess enhanced resistance to Monsanto's top selling Roundup herbicide, reducing farmer concern about herbicide damage to the crop but not necessarily lowering the amount of Roundup applied on the field. Monsanto's New Leaf potato is actually registered with the EPA as a pesticide; every part of the plant is toxic to the Colorado potato beetle.
USDA research indicates that 50 million acres were planted in 1998 with genetically altered crops, up from just 8 million acres in 1996. And this year, estimates are that even more acreage has been planted with biotech crops, including 30 percent of all soybeans and 40 percent of the corn.
The USDA's Hays says Terminator seed applications remain at least four years away from entering the marketplace. "This is not going to be there tomorrow," she says. "We are in the very early days." Yet it's clear that biotech promoters have skillfully encouraged rapid adoption of many other genetically engineered products.
Adds Hays: "Nobody's going to stop third-world farmers from buying their traditional seeds. Ultimately, farmers area going to decide if this goes. It's up to them."
"But the real question," says Shand, "is will farmers have a choice?"
To ensure market dominance, the biotech firms are feasting on their competition. Five years ago, Monsanto wasn't even a player in the seed market. Their multibillion-dollar purchases of Dekalb's and Cargill's seed businesses have rocketed the firm to No. 2 among world seed purveyors. DuPont tops the list, having recently acquired Pioneer Seeds. The third largest seed company is Swiss-based Novartis, a child of the newly merged Ciba Geigy and Sandoz.
"Unless governments stop this technology, every commercial seed will be Terminator in five to 10 years," forecasts Shand. "The technology will be used."
Jane Rissler, the senior staff scientist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggests other potential hazards from the seed-killer technology. "What if there is gene flow to wild plant relatives?" she asks. Grains of pollen spiked with the Terminator's toxic gene could be carried by the wind or insects to neighboring plants and kill them. "It could be the end of all those wild plants," Rissler says.
It's not clear what the impact of the tetracycline-coated seeds would be on the soil and the multitude of organisms living in it, or how it might affect animals eating the antibiotic-laced seeds. Will tetracycline work 100 percent of the time and activate the seed-killer genes? It's also not known if broadcasting more antibiotics into the environment will further diminish effective use of antibiotics as a medical tool.
One example of an unexpected problem with the current generation of genetically altered crops is in Bt corn. Cornell University researchers announced earlier this year that pollen from the corn (it's not uncommon for corn pollen to migrate two miles from the plant) killed Monarch butterfly larvae. Swiss and Scottish researchers have reported that ladybugs and green lacewings -- beneficial insects that prey on crop pests -- seem to die earlier from a diet of Bt-infected bugs.
Kloppenburg mentions another technology looming in the biotech pipeline -- Traitor technology, which for Kloppenburg represents "a critical breakthrough for the seed companies." He thinks it can be used to force farmers to buy additional corporate technologies and additives. It would work by making certain plant properties -- for example, flowering and germination, flavors and nutritional values, and pest and herbicide resistance -- develop only in Traitor plants when the company's proprietary chemicals are sprayed on, triggering on/off switches in the plant's new governing genes.
Hays rejects a characterization of the Terminator technology as "monstrous." "I think people are getting overly concerned on this and jumping to conclusions," she says.
Kloppenburg isn't ready to call for a ban on genetic engineering. Instead he advocates a "go slow" approach. "We are perturbing extremely complex systems," he explains. "We've got too much we don't know. We ought to slow down and put a lot of money into molecular ecology and genetic ecology."