Genetically engineered food arriving on our shelves unlabelled is one high profile aspect of the genetic engineering debate. Another issue, of concern to anyone who loves variety in edible plants and who enjoys saving seed, is the agribusiness race to develop sterile seed and in effect, exert even more control over agriculture. Linked to sterile seed technology are plans to control special gene traits of plants by the application of external catalysts, such as herbicides and fertilisers.
The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) has closely followed developments in this area of biotechnology, calling seed sterilisation Terminator technology, and the ability to switch specific traits on or off via an external catalyst, The Traitor.
According to Martha Crouch, Indiana University Associate Professor of Biology, whose paper "How the Terminator terminates" is online at RAFIís website, it would be a big boost to seed company profits if people who now grow non-hybrid crops had to buy new seed every year. This may have been the major incentive for developing the Terminator technology, she said.
Another reason she cites is prevention of the reuse of seeds containing herbicide tolerance, while a third is to keep genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from escaping into the environment through cross-pollination.
She said all possible ramifications of implementing the Terminator patent cannot be determined ahead of time. However, a potential problem is that, under certain conditions, the Terminator will kill the seeds of neighbouring plants of the same species, although only those of the next generation. Only when the seed is planted and does not germinate will the change become apparent.
Another question is whether the terminator seeds will effect birds, insects, fungi and bacteria that eat or infect the seeds. She also questions what effect the suggested use of the antibiotic, tetracycline, to activate the Terminator gene, will have on the environment and health. Later patents are focusing on the idea of using herbicides or pesticides instead of the antibiotic.
"I am confident that some of the particular problems . . . will be be addressed by the seed industry before they implement the technology. However, I am also sure there will be other problems no one yet foresees or imagines."
RAFI says the Terminator is a threat to biological diversity and to the well-being of the 1.4 billion rural people who rely on farm saved seed and local plant breeding.
The most evident feature of the Terminator is a suicide sequence of exotic genes, (triggered by an external application of an antibiotic) which renders the seeds sterile in the next generation, RAFI said recently.
RAFI has investigated over three dozen genetic sterility patent claims from 13 public and private institutes, many of which take the Terminator several steps further, linking the external catalyst to applications of herbicide or fertiliser instead of antibiotic. Some of the claims take the technology beyond plants and insects to mammalian cells, RAFI says.
This development of the original Terminator concept into what RAFI calls Traitor technology enables the seed company to activate or deactivate commercial characteristics which have been genetically engineered into a plant variety, at or after the point of sale, by soaking the seed or applying sprays.
The agricultural companies want to "wind proprietary Traitor seeds together with proprietary chemicals in a package such that one is useless without the other."
RAFI says the new technologies will be dominated by no more than five or six trans-national agri-industrial firms it calls Gene Giants that already control nearly all the transgenic seed market, and that "Traitor Tech" could occupy the entire transgenic seed market by 2010.
The foundation bases its forecast of what to expect in seed biotechnology on existing patent claims combined with "market logic backed by recent experience." It says it drew attention to the fact pesticide manufacturers were buying into the seed industry in order to develop plant varieties that could tolerate their patented herbicides 20 years ago. There is a natural commercial tendency to reduce costs and maximise profit, the foundation said.
Whether the above technologies are allowed to dominate world crop production or be banned by national patent offices and intergovernmental agencies will probably be determined in 1999/2000, RAFI says.
RAFI is also drawing attention to the steadily shrinking number of corporate giants controlling an expanding market share over agribusiness, food and pharmacy.
"Unchecked corporate power coupled with the vanishing role of public sector research will affect all areas of global health, agriculture and nutrition. Neglect of the public good is inevitable when the research agenda is determined by the private sector in pursuit of corporate profits."
Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) is a non-governmental organisation headquartered in Canada. RAFI is dedicated to the conservation and sustainable improvement of agricultural biodiversity, and to the social responsible development of technologies useful to rural societies. RAFI is concerned about the loss of genetic diversity -- especially in agriculture -- and about the impact of intellectual property rights on agriculture and world food security.