RAFI: Traitor Tech: 'Damaged Goods' from the Gene Giants
post-o-matic at rafi.org
post-o-matic at rafi.org
Tue Mar 30 15:32:23 EST 1999
Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI)
29 March 1999
** TRAITOR TECHNOLOGY: "Damaged Goods" from the Gene Giants **
New report from RAFI details over 2 dozen "Terminator II"
patents that link suicide seeds to proprietary chemicals,
genetically-weakened plants, and the patented power to
make genetically-inviable plants rise from the dead.
Beyond the prognostications of even its most pessimistic critics, Terminator
science is snowballing into the corporate profit centre of the next decade
and beyond. And, if the major seed and agrochemical multinationals have
their way, Terminator and Traitor (negative trait) technologies will come on
the heels of the new millennium to a farm near you. RAFI's Executive
Director Pat Mooney declares, "With this report and our previous work on the
Terminator, RAFI is sounding the alarm that without government action, these
technologies will be commercialized within a few years with potentially
Says RAFI Programme Officer Edward Hammond, "Since we discovered the original
Terminator patent a year ago, even at our most pessimistic we never forecast
negative trait genetic engineering to explode as quickly as it has." Most
observers thought there would be a delay of two or three years before second
and third generation Terminator refinements were patented; but instead says
Hammond, "a survey of patent offices reveals that the cat is completely out
of the bag. In fact, the original Terminator may be a dead letter because
enhanced Terminator seeds are already in the laboratory."
RAFI reports that every Gene Giant multinational has patented, or admits it
is working on genetically-sterilized or chemically-dependent seeds. RAFI's
report provides details and analysis on over two dozen such patents recently
obtained by 12 institutions. The patents seek to exploit - or could exploit
- new genetic engineering techniques that use inducible promoters to disable
critical plant functions governing reproduction, disease resistance, and seed
If commercialization of such seeds proceeds, farmers worldwide will be
tangled in an expensive web of chemicals, intellectual property, and disabled
germplasm that leads to bioserfdom. The technology spells disaster for
farmers and global food security because over three quarters of the world's
farmers - mainly poor farmers - depend on farm saved seed. The complete
removal of farmers from the age-old process of plant breeding through
sterilized seed could also signify a disastrous narrowing of the genepool on
which everyone depends for food security.
SCARY SCOPE: According to RAFI's Research Director Hope Shand, "The patents
describe the use of external chemicals to turn on and off genetic traits in
plants and go well beyond DeltaPine's original 'Terminator' patent. They are
techniques to control a wide variety of input and output (production and
processing) traits by spraying with proprietary herbicides or fertilizers.
Others take us beyond crop plants to the use of Terminator-style tactics on
insects and even possibly mammals."
KILLER GENES, JUNKIE SEEDS, AND MODERN-DAY "MIRACLES": Some patents aim to
switch the plants germination on or off. AstraZenecas Verminator patents
use what it calls killer genes for this purpose. Yet AstraZeneca has been
telling governments, scientists, and the press that despite their continuing
pursuit of its patents around the world, they wont stop farmers from saving
seed. RAFI's Pat Mooney says, "Something didn't add up, so we set out to
Newly discovered patent claims explain the confusing AstraZeneca position.
The new patents refine AstraZeneca's "Verminator" technology that links plant
growth and germination to repeated application of proprietary chemicals.
Without specific patented chemicals, the plant doesn't grow. "Essentially,"
says RAFI's Edward Hammond, "they're talking about the manufacture of junkie
plants that are physically dependent on a patented chemical cocktail."
AstraZeneca says it will patent the technology in 77 countries.
Says RAFI's Mooney, "So, you see AstraZeneca and the other Gene Giants dont
want farmers to buy new seed every year so much as to force them to
repurchase their old seed." Monsanto is already pioneering such 'pay by the
generation' techniques through legal means - the infamous grower agreements -
in the US and Canada; but research is steering toward biological means of
achieving the same sad end. Mooney says "It will be vastly more profitable
for multinationals to sell seeds programmed to commit suicide at harvest so
that farmers must pay the company to obtain the chemicals to have them
re-activated for the next planting either through a seed conditioning
process or through the purchase of a specialized chemicals that bring saved
seed back to life, Lazarus-style."
"In effect, this shifts all the seed costs to farmers, and the companies
wont have to multiply, ship, and warehouse massive seed stocks," Hammond
adds, "As the seed oligopoly strengthens, companies will have less and less
incentive to invest in plant breeding research, after all they'll already
have the farmers in a position of utter dependency." Pat Mooney agrees,
"With these 'Lazarus-link seeds' the advertising investment will continue but
the research investment will wither away."
GENETIC MUTILATION: An especially disturbing feature of some of the new
patents profiled in RAFI's report is the deliberate disabling of natural
plant functions that help to fight disease. Swiss biotech giant Novartis is
most advanced in this aspect of Traitor technology. Novartis blandly refers
to it as "inactivation of endogenous regulation" so that "genes which are
natively regulated can be regulated exclusively by the application to the
plant of a chemical regulator."
Among the genes which Novartis can control in this manner are patented SAR
(systemic acquired resistance) genes which are critical to plant's ability to
fight off infections from many viruses and bacteria. Thus, Novartis has
patented techniques to create plants with natural healthy functions turned
off. "The only way to turn them back on and fix these 'damaged goods' " says
RAFI's Edward Hammond, "is, well, you guessed it, the application of a
TIGHT-LIPPED MONSANTO: Caught like a deer in the headlights during recent
battles over genetically-modified plants - especially in Europe - Monsanto
has sought to deflect questions and criticism about Terminator technology by
saying that the Terminator belongs to its soon-to-be subsidiary Delta and
Pine Land Company. As such, the oft-repeated PR position goes, Monsanto
doesn't yet have access to the Terminator and can't inform concerned
governments and people about plans for Terminator seed.
"It's been their mantra across the world." says RAFI's Mooney, "We've heard
the same confusing statements from Monsanto representatives in New Zealand,
India, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Brazil, the EU, and the US." Even last week, at a
Harvard University presentation, Monsanto's representative similarly shrugged
off the question. "In fact," says RAFI's Mooney, "it's a deliberate ploy -
or, at best, incomplete information - that obfuscates facts about the
company's own research agenda. Monsanto already has its own in-house,
patented Terminator technology, which it says it will patent in a whopping 89
countries. Obviously, the company is not being forthright. If Monsanto
doesn't start coming clean, it risks further damage to its already tarnished
WILL TERMINATOR WORK? RAFI notes that some plant scientists are skeptical
that Traitor Technology will work successfully in the field. Monsanto, one
of the original Traitor Tech proponents, is encouraging this view. There is
no doubt that Traitor Tech will be continually refined as it moves toward the
market; but terminator plants are already in the greenhouse and profit
estimates are being calculated. "It's only a matter of time. Every major
pesticide-producing Gene Giant is hard at work perfecting the technology."
Shand adds, "Companies don't patent for the fun of the paperwork and paying
lawyer's fees. Those who think corporations will drop the Terminator or
think it wont make it to market - are living in Fantasyland. Theres too
much money to be made. Unless it is banned by governments, Terminator is
going to happen, and probably sooner rather than later."
WILL FARMERS BUY IT? Delta & Pine Land and Monsanto insist that no one will
force farmers to buy Terminator seed. The real question is, will farmers
have a choice? The commercial seed industry is imploding, and a handful of
Gene Giants already control a rapidly expanding share of major seed markets.
After DuPont announced earlier this month that it would buy Pioneer Hi-Bred,
the world's largest seed company, the Wall Street Journal concluded that the
deal "effectively divides" most of the US seed industry between DuPont and
Monsanto. With the disappearance of public sector plant breeders, farmers are
becoming increasingly vulnerable and have fewer choices in the marketplace.
TERMINATING THE TERMINATOR: RAFI and its partners around the world are
contacting governments asking them to declare all of the Terminator-style
patent claims as contrary to ordre public. In January, Global Response (a US
based non-profit organization) encouraged its 4,000 members in forty
countries to write to the Director-General of FAO asking him to oppose the
Terminator as a matter of world food security. FAO has replied that
governments may take up the issue in Rome April 19 to 23 during the meeting
of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. RAFI
will be at that meeting and will make a presentation to governments.
Further, concerned individuals from 71 countries have sent almost 7,000
letters to US Agriculture Secretary Glickman asking him to ban the
Although global opposition is mounting, RAFI worries that the UNs
Biodiversity Convention may go "soft" on the environmental and social
implications of the technology. When the Convention meets in Montreal in
June, it is to receive a scientific study on Terminator. "We will read and
respond to that study very quickly," Pat Mooney advises.
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