Corporate Biopiracy and the Terminator Seed
by Bruce Dixon
Originally published in Black Commentator on April 28, 2005
It is arguably the most fiendish product yet devised by corporate genetic engineers
Ever since humans started farming about ten thousand years ago, farmers have saved the seed from one year’s crop to produce the next, and freely exchanged seed with neighbors and friends. If the Bush administration and its friends at Monsanto and other “life-sciences” corporations get their way it will soon be illegal in much of the world.
“The problem with farmers exchanging seeds, and saving seeds and planting seeds,” says Michael Dorsey, a professor of International Environmental Policy at Dartmouth University, “is that corporations don’t make any money off it.”
The latest move in the decades-long campaign by the corporate “life-science industry” to horn in on this ancient and unprofitable practice is the patenting and introduction of the so-called “terminator seed.” Arguably the most fiendish product yet devised by corporate genetic engineers, and in the United States, the least known, terminator gene technology prevents this year’s crop from producing next year’s seed, thus obliging otherwise ungrateful farmers to return to distributors for each year’s seed. As patent holder, the US Department of Agriculture intends to license and implement this obscene technology worldwide, applying it to food crops including maize, wheat and rice, which are the staples of much of the developing world. The aim of US corporate biopirates is eventually to make impossible the saving and preserving of next year’s seed from this year’s crop anyplace on earth, while guaranteeing themselves a no-risk profit any time a farmer plants anywhere in the world.
"They are putting the entire planet's food supply at risk for what could potentially be a vast profit."
“With genetic use restriction technology, the corporate name for the ‘terminator seed’ Monsanto and the other life science companies,” according to Dorsey, “are engaged in a set of ethically and scientifically questionable maneuvers that aim to capture and control agriculture on a global scale. They are putting the entire planet’s food supply at risk for what could be a potentially vast profit.”
How has such a thing become possible?
Corporate power has long influenced the direction of basic biological research. Rather than seeking better understandings of the relations of parts to each other in the earth’s incredibly complex and interdependent ecosystems, scientists for more than 50 years have focused on dividing, defining and parsing the genetic code of organisms as a prelude to claiming property rights to what they might some day invent, or merely describe.
More than 20 years ago, agribusiness, pharmaceutical and “life science” companies, Monsanto first among them, set their sights on what they called “commercialization and value capture” of global agriculture.
"In many cases it has become illegal for American farmers to save and plant their own seeds."
Through campaign and other donations corporate lobbyists purchased regulations, laws and court decisions which mandated the registration of each and every crop variety, prescribed heavy fines for the planting and distribution of unlicensed seed, and required licensing and extensive record keeping on the part of anybody selling or giving seeds away. In many cases, it has become illegal for American farmers to save and plant their own seeds. At the same time, US patent laws were expanded to allow corporations to claim genetic material as their private “intellectual property.”
“The granting of life patents,” environmental activist Dr. Vandana Shiva says, “was seen as an imperative both by the industry as well as the government. The U.S. government actually encouraged life patenting. The decision-making was set by the courts, rather than by Congress, never with a public debate, never with a public policy decision on the ethical implications, ecological implications, economic implications of what life patents mean.”
International “free trade” agreements like GATT, NAFTA and the WTO served to make US patent law the global rule. Hence, American corporations beginning in the 1990s were able file a blizzard of patents claiming varieties of rice and wheat grown for centuries in India, beans cultivated before Columbus in Mexico, a staggering array of medicinal plants known and used by local inhabitants of Africa, of South and Southeast Asia, of Amazonia and elsewhere, along with the foods and medicines derived from them, and their methods of preparation as the private “intellectual property” of those corporations.
The job of corporate researchers was to come up with new and patentable life forms to which their sponsors could claim property rights. Corporate geneticists learned to insert genetic material from one kind of organism into another, creating the first transgenic organisms. Human genes were spliced into animals, animal and bacterial DNA into plants, often using infectious viruses as insertion tools and markers, all in the service of maximizing corporate profit. A typical example involves the placement of genes into seeds that make plants resist or require the application of herbicide manufactured by that same corporation, or genes that produce “proto-toxin” insecticides, that supposedly do not turn toxic until ingested by a pest insect or the predator of a helpful insect.
"Citizens in Europe, Africa and Asia have, with varying degrees of success mobilized to force their governments to resist the importation of American "FrankenFood"
Attendant risks, such as the uncontrolled pollination of transgenic plants contaminating the genome of existing ones, or horizontal gene transfer, in which genetic material from inserted viruses can end up in the genes of those who eat genetically modified food, are given scant attention, except by the public relations flacks who assure us there is nothing, absolutely nothing to worry about. But according to scientists, farmers and consumers around the world there is plenty to worry about.
Most of the world’s genetically modified crops are planted in the US, Canada, Brazil and Argentina. But citizens in Europe, Africa and Asia have with varying degrees of success mobilized to force their governments to resist the importation of American “Frankenfood” or the planting of genetically modified crops. Transgenic pollution has already occurred in Mexico, where ancestral varieties of corn already been contaminated by the pollen of corporate genetically modified corn grown in open fields hundreds of miles north in the US. When Zambia and Zimbabwe refused food “aid” shipments of American corn in 2002, it was because authorities knew thrifty farmers would save and plant some of the genetically modified corn, and its pollen would inevitably be carried by wind and insects to pollute crops in the entire region, with unpredictable results.
“The State Department, the Department of Agriculture, and USAID” claims Dorsey, “have caused or allowed genetically modified foodstuffs to comprise a very large proportion of US food aid… The US also uses bilateral trade negotiations to bully weaker countries into accepting this Trojan Horse food aid along with a smorgasboard of other deleterious stuff. Private US charities and corporations like Monsanto have gotten themselves into the act too, giving away US genetically modified food to depress local prices in foreign markets and insert themselves....”
The greed and hubris of the “life science” corporations knows no bounds. Monsanto recently sued a Canadian farmer all the way up to Canada’s Supreme Court for non-payment of royalties after his crop was polluted by transgenic Monsanto pollen, and international agribusiness concerns are doing the same in Argentina.
Biopiracy and World Food Security
"There is a growning worldwide movement in Europe, Asia and Africa to ban terminator seed."
The term applied by most of the world to corporate “value capture” in agriculture is biopiracy. Civilized humanity views it as a mostly American attempt to hijack the biodiversity of the Earth itself and privatize the labor of countless generations of farmers. In India and elsewhere resistance to the depredations of transnational biopirates who are squeezing local agriculture have grown to the dimensions of mass movements, able to put hundreds of thousands of people in the streets on short notice in postures of active resistance. There is a growing worldwide movement in Europe, Asia and Africa to ban terminator seed and other corporate transgenic crop technologies.
National governments throughout the developing world view genetically modified crops and the terminator seed as dire threats to their food security. Many frame this situation as nothing less than the latest incarnation of colonialism. As India’s Dr. Vandana Shiva, the author of Stolen Harvest and Biopiracy: The Theft of Nature and Knowledge put it, medieval pirates like Columbus had letters of patent entitling all the lands, goods and people they encountered who were not already ruled by white Christian princes. Modern patents which turn the genetic heritage of the planet into corporate private so-called “intellectual property” are equally illegitimate.
But these are news and views the corporate American media diligently protect us from. Thanks to the American media bubble, the nation whose people consume the most genetically modified food know less about genetic engineering of the food chain than anybody else on Earth. When Oprah Winfrey swore off hamburger on a TV show she was promptly hauled into court for “libeling” Texas beef. One can only imagine what the fate might be of public figures in this country rash enough to call attention to and support a worldwide ban on genetically modified foods and terminator technology.
The terminator seed briefly made headlines in 1998 when the ETC Group revealed that the US Department of Agriculture had patented this abhorrent technology.
“We estimate that the US Department of Agriculture received over 10,000 emails and letters protesting its support of genetic seed sterilization, and calling on the Dept. to abandon the technology,” said ETC Group director Hope Shand, who coined the name “terminator seed” for these genetic devices.
“The public outcry forced Monsanto, the biggest player in genetically modified crops and one of the world's largest pesticide firms to publicly pledge that it would not develop the technology… The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity supported a de facto moratorium on Terminator technology in 2000.”
But quietly, according to Hope Shand, and under a near whiteout in the US media, the corporate biopirates are making moves to impose terminator seed technology on the rest of the world.
“At a February meeting of scientific advisors to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, Canada did the dirty work for the US government and the biotech industry by drafting a recommendation to allow for the field testing and commercial use of Terminator seeds – essentially undoing the precautionary language now in place at the United Nations. Fortunately, the Canadian position was not accepted at the February meeting, but we expect to see strong pressure by industry in the coming months to win acceptance of Terminator seeds.”
"Famines happen when we play games with the food supply"
attempted to contact the offices of Senate Agriculture chairman Saxby Chamblis (R. GA), and Rep. David Scott, (D. GA) who serves on the House Agriculture Committee, but could find nobody at either office who would talk, or even admit they knew anything about “terminator seed” technology. This is not a bad time to make your own representative in Congress aware of the danger of US support for deploying terminator seed technology.
“Famines don’t occur in today’s world…because of natural disasters” concludes brother Michael Dorsey at Dartmouth. “They don’t happen because there are too many people. They happen because of political and economic decisions [when] people with power decide that those without it don’t eat. They happen when we play games with the food supply…. It doesn’t take much imagination to come up with a scenario where corporate transgenic crops and terminator technology lead to disastrous food shortages for tens or hundreds of millions of people… This is very dangerous stuff.”
In his last week at the Department of Homeland Security, former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge talked about how easy it would be for “terrorists” to tamper with the nation’s food supply. We at think he was kidding. It seems safe to assume that like the rest of the Minister of Fear’s terror alerts, this was intended to direct our attention away from something a lot more substantial, like the very real risks and consequences of corporate genetic tampering with the planet’s food security. Should we hear the words “terrorism” and “food supply” in the same paragraph any time in the near future we will be reminded of the little man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. He would tell us to pay no attention to the patent lawyers, genetic engineers and corporate biopirates behind the curtain, busy hijacking the planet’s food supply.
Additional resources on biopiracy and the commodification of nature:
Interview with Vandana Shiva
The Role of Patents in the Rise of Globalization
There are about a dozen speeches by Vandana Shiva, freely downloadable online.
Go to Radio4All. On the right choose “Advanced search”, and in the “Full text search” box type Vandana Shiva
SciDev.Net’s dossier on “intellectual property”
The Institute of Science in Society has a wealth of information on the subject.
A good place to start is its FAQ on Genetic Engineering
The ETC Group