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Terminator Redux

BY MICHAEL MANVILLE
04.05.2001 | SCIENCE

In 1999 the Monsanto Chemical Company spent $1.9 billion to purchase the Delta and Pine Land Company, an agricultural research firm which was the world's leading producer of cotton seed. The purchase capped an ambitious $8.4 billion spending spree that Monsanto had begun in1994, buying up seed companies, agrichemical corporations, and genetics research concerns. With its controlling shares in cotton, Delta and Pine Land was a sensible purchase. But cotton wasn't the only reason Monsanto bought it.

Delta and Pine Land also held US patent 5723765, which is listed under the broad phrase "controlling plant gene expression". Of all the potential applications this technology has, the most valuable is the ability to create plants that induce their own sterility. Monsanto called it the "Technology Protection System." Its critics, less impressed, dubbed it Terminator Technology.

Whatever name one chooses, the first essential fact about patent 5723765 is that Delta and Pine Land did not develop it alone. The research that created it was performed in conjunction with the United States Department of Agriculture, and thus funded by taxpayer dollars—about 229,000 of them. By virtue of some creative legislation passed for the USDA's benefit (see related article) Delta and Pine Land, a private company, was able to patent this semi-public research. And once it had the patent, Monsanto bought it.

Monsanto has long struggled with the problem it calls seed piracy. The company has created a variety of genetically modified seeds, which it claims can be used to feed a growing world population. Most of the existing GM crops, however, exist to enrich Monsanto: the company has developed a soybean seed, for example, called Roundup Ready, so named because it is immune to the herbicide Roundup, another Monsanto product. Roundup Ready is extremely popular, and the company uses it to increase demand on both ends—buying the seed allows a farmer to "safely" use more herbicide, so he buys more herbicide too. In a similar vein, Monsanto and its competitors also have crops that it will grow if treated with their own fertilizers.

Monsanto has spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing these seeds, and quite naturally wants to recoup its investment. For this reason bags of Roundup Ready soy can cost as much as $32 more than conventional varieties, and every bag also has a $6.50 "Technology Fee" attached to it. The idea of copyrighting seeds, however, flies in the face of a practice as old as farming itself: saving seeds from year to year. Seed-saving both cuts cost for the farmer and also sustains biodiversity, ensuring that differing strains of a particular crop survive from year to year, and allowing the crops as a result a greater resistance to new diseases and pests.

But seed-saving also cuts Monsanto out of the picture, and the company has gone to great lengths to stamp it out. It requires that any farmer who buys Roundup Ready seeds sign a contract saying that the seeds wont be saved. Anyone caught saving seed, the contract goes on to stipulate, must pay a royalty fee and open their farm to inspection for the next five years. Because the international patent for Roundup expired in 1991, and the US patent expired in 2000, the contract also stipulates that farmers using Roundup Ready will only use Roundup herbicide, not the less-expensive—and completely legal—generic brands.

In the United States and Canada, the company has enforced this agreement by hiring Pinkerton Detectives to raid farms, mailing letters to farmers that encourage them to turn in seed-saving neighbors, and prosecuting over 500 alleged seed pirates in court. Detectives and stool pigeons have a limited efficacy, however; functional as they are in America, in other countries, and particular in the developing world, such police actions are much harder to carry out.

This is where the Terminator came in. The patent for gene expression allowed Monsanto to create plants that don't have seeds. Entire crops, every year, would commit suicide, and farmers would have no choice but to buy more seed the next season. The technology alarmed a number of genetic researchers, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, who worried about the possibility of Terminator plants accidentally cross-breeding with conventional varieties, leading to the sterilization of entire species. But such concern was admittedly speculation—the real outcry arose over the technology's social implications.

More than anyone else, subsistence farmers in the developing world need to save seed. These farmers rely on seeds not for livelihood but for life itself—growing the food necessary to feed their families. Giving them seeds with no second-generation yield would literally put a price on their lives. Yet the developing world was precisely where Monsanto envisioned using the Terminator. In addition to its own contacts in the Third World, the corporation gets a significant amount of business from the World Bank, providing seed, pesticide and fertilizer to Bank agricultural projects. The Technology Protection System was going to protect these clients, and ensure that the farmers had to come back for more.

Along the way, Terminator would likely have hastened the demise of small farms. Be they commercial or subsistence, small farms go bankrupt every day, usually because the income a farmer receives doesn't recoup the initial costs of starting the farm. Initial costs are one-time or infrequent expenditures: seed, pesticide, farm equipment. Because it would mandate a full purchase of seed every year, the Terminator would increase these initial costs, and accelerate the failure of small farms. Only large agribusiness companies would have the money necessary to constantly pay technology fees, and thus the food supply would be further consolidated.

The Terminator's most unlikely adversary came from within the World Bank. Last year the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, an organization run jointly by the World Bank and the United Nations, announced that it would ban any use of Terminator Technology in its sustainability projects, and urged the governments of the Third World to reject it out of hand. Faced with this rebuke, and with growing pressure from activists in the U.S. and Europe, Monsanto backed down, and decided against using the sterile seeds.

Now, however, the company is promoting a massive campaign that says genetic engineering is the planet's best hope for feeding the Third World. But this leopard has already shown its spots. Had nobody stopped it, Monsanto would have quietly hooked the world's poorest farmers on a food stream it could choke off at will. This is capitalism, and it is fine, but it should not be confused with humanitarianism. If you want to feed the world, there are any number of organizations you can support. Just don't look to Monsanto; it is looking out for itself.

About the Author
Michael Manville's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications. He lives in Los Angeles.
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