WASHINGTON, DC, July 6, 1999 (ENS) - An international convention on
biodiversity has declined to call for substantial restrictions on the use
of bioengineered sterile seeds, often called terminator seeds. This lack
of strong action is leading some critics to warn that the seeds could
cripple small farmers and jeopardize the ability of developing countries
to ensure reliable food supplies.
The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopted
resolution at a Montreal meeting ending June 25 calling for a cautious
approach to the use of the seeds, which experts say will not be on the
market for several years.
But the CBD also noted that countries that refuse to buy the seeds run
risk of economic sanctions from countries selling the seeds.
There are 175 countries that have ratified the treaty, but the United
States is not one of them, Although it signed in 1993, the U.S. is not a
Party to the treaty and had only observer status at the Montreal meeting.
Still, the United States has a strong interest in keeping this sterile
seed biotechnology free of restrictions because U.S. companies, such as
Delta Pine & Lands of Mississippi, hold patents on the technique.
Representatives of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI),
an international civil society organization headquartered in Winnipeg,
Canada, say economic sanctions could force developing countries into
dependence on genetically engineered crops, thus reducing worldwide biodiversity.
The CBDs scientific arm, the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical
Technological Advice (SBSTTA) met in Montreal from June 21 to June 25 to
discuss a number of issues, including new technology that can control the expression of a plants genes.
The new bioscience, called genetic use restriction technologies (GURTs),
allows companies to create plants that grow to maturity but produce
sterile seeds. Seed companies could therefore prevent farmers from
gathering seeds from mature crops and planting them the following season.
Instead, farmers would be forced to buy new seeds each year.
The companies say the GURTs, popularly known as terminator seeds, will
protect their research and development investments in genetically modified
(GM) crops. Biotechnology companies such as Monsanto are making
modifications to crops to add resistance to herbicides, increased shelf
life or better nutritional value. These modifications can be linked to
GURTs, preventing farmers from buying modified crops once and using the
seeds for future plantings.
The United States representative to the Montreal meeting noted for the
report that the U.S. could not associate itself with any implicit call for
a moratorium on testing or commercialization of GURTs.
Terminator seeds could have unpleasant side effects, both commercial
biological. Pat Mooney, executive director of RAFI, says his group has
uncovered 31 patents on terminator genes that cause seed sterilization in
the final stages of plant growth. Nearly every large agricultural and
biotechnology company has a patent he says, raising the possibility that
every seed sold could someday come with a terminator tag.
"Only three companies were marketing GM seeds last year," Mooney told
"This year, the global market for GM seeds will be dominated by six or
seven companies that will all have patents for terminator technology."
When asked if farmers were likely to accept terminator seeds, Mooney said,
"I think it's unavoidable. Farmers are not stupid, but farmers will not
have choices." Competition in the marketplace will force farmers to choose
seeds that promise the highest crop yields, which are often GM varieties.
Farmers could become dependent on the biotechnology companies for an
ongoing supply of the terminator seeds. "What happens if a company decides
one area is not a profitable marketplace?" asks Mooney. Moving away from
crops with viable seeds could threaten developing countries ability to
insure a reliable food supply from one year to the next, he says.
Biologically, using new seeds each year will reduce the diversity of
crops. If farmers are planting only a small variety of modified seeds, and
these seeds cannot exchange genes with nearby fields through cross
pollination, eventually the gene pool for the crops could be severely
restricted. A restricted, inbred gene pool can be wiped out by the arrival
of a new disease or predator.
There is also no guarantee that the modified genes would not spread
related plants. Though experts do not consider the scenario likely, the
specter looms that other plants could take up the terminator genes and go
extinct in a single season.
Richard Jefferson, chief author of an expert assessment reviewed by
CBD and chairman of the Center for the Application of Molecular Biology in
International Agriculture (CAMBIO), presented an overview of the core
technology and biology behind GURTs at the meeting.
Dr. Richard Jefferson noted that GURT technology will not be commercially
available for five years.
Jefferson noted that GURTs do not need to produce terminator seeds.
Instead, crops could be programmed to only express desirable traits like
resistance to herbicides when they are exposed to a particular chemical,
which biotechnology companies could sell separately.
A company could protect its financial investment in developing GM crops
by, in effect, charging extra for the modified traits. These crops would
still produce viable seeds which farmers could use for future crops.
The CBD declined requests by several member countries for an international
moratorium on terminator technology. In its final resolution, the group
recommended continued study into and development of GURTs, and urged
cautious application of the technology in experimental and commercial plantings.
The U.S. made what Mooney calls a "strong statement" to the CBD warning
that countries that enact moratoriums against GURTs could face economic
"The tragedy is that the CBD, which is supposed to be the bulwark of
biodiversity, sort of embarrassed itself," Mooney says. The CBDs weak
resolution may threaten the power of the group to influence international
policy among its 175 member countries.
"GURTs challenge the legal sovereignty of developing countries over
biodiversity, a cornerstone of the CBD," says Mooney. "If the Convention
cannot take a stand on Terminator, what can it do?"
The CBD convention next year in Nairobi, Kenya could be the six year
groups last chance to prove itself as a viable policy making body. Mooney
says, "If it doesnt come in with a bang...governments will decide its just
not worth attending."
[Earth Negotiations Bulletin contributed to this report. ]