Uganda: Southern Farmers Confront Challenge of Terminator II (14/3/2006)

EXCERPT: "We can only shake our heads in wonder at the logic. To us it is obvious. There can be no food security if there are sterile seeds.

"Perhaps it is harder for those from developed countries to appreciate what seed means to us. But let us assure you that when we have described this technology to farmers, their response is one of disbelief, fear and outrage."

Uganda: Southern Farmers Confront Challenge of Terminator II
PANOS, March 13, 2006
Ebenezer Bifubyeka Mbarara

Unknown perhaps to most farmers, the governments of Australia, Canada and New Zealand - apparently prompted by Washington - have just been trying to get the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, or CBD, to overturn a six-year-old moratorium on the production and use of what have come to be called 'Terminator Seeds'.

The technology, developed by multinational biotech companies, is controversial because the genetic code that causes seeds to self-destruct after harvesting just once robs farmers of the opportunity to save and sow again season after season - as they have done ever since agriculture began thousands of years ago.

'Suicide seeds'

Officially known as Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT), it is aimed at stopping farmers from freely reproducing seeds developed by large companies who put considerable funds into research and development.

It was jointly developed in the early 1990s by the US government's Department of Agriculture and the Delta and Pine Land Company. They hold a US patent on the technology, and in October 2005 were granted the first European terminator patent.

The initial bid to introduce these seeds - also called 'Suicide Seeds' - in the late 1990s was met by massive public opposition across the world, with campaigners pointing out that 1.4 billion farmers worldwide depend on saved seeds and that the majority of them could not afford to buy new seeds every season.

The outcry led the CBD to agree an international de-facto moratorium on use of Terminator in 2000.

A 'bewildering' return

However, at a meeting of the CBD in Granada, Spain, on 23 to 27 January 2006, Australia, Canada and New Zealand successfully argued that the technology could actually increase productivity. Making a case that some anti-GM campaigners called "bewildering", these countries argued that the new technology causes all crops to ripen at the same time - with minimum losses to storms and pests - which could increase profits for farmers.

New wording added to the CBD by these countries at the working group meeting in Granada threatens to overturn the moratorium, advocating instead "a case-by-case risk assessment basis with respect to different categories of GURTs technology".

In tandem, Monsanto, one of the largest biotech companies in the world, appears to have reversed a pledge made in 1999 not to commercialise Terminator technology in food crops.

Monsanto's new policy says that although the company continues to "stand by that commitment today", it "does not rule out the potential development and use of one of these [GURTs] technologies in the future. The company will continue to study the risks and benefits of this technology on a case-by-case basis".

The new text from Granada is to be placed before a high-level meeting of the CBD at Curitiba in Brazil in March. Campaigners say the stand taken by the European Union at Curitiba will be key to the fate of the moratorium. Although the EU itself takes a 'case-by-case' approach to GMOs, whether or not it will want to harmonise CBD provisions with its domestic regulations remains unclear.

In the meantime, just as in the 1990s, farmers' groups from around the world - particularly Africa - are up in arms.

Ugandan challenge

The situation in Uganda captures the challenges facing farmers across the developing world - not only is knowledge about this technology scant, but governments do not have the expertise and technologies needed to assess the health and environmental risks posed by it.

Food Rights Network (FORINET), an alliance of farmers' organisations, community-based organisations and civil society organisations based in Eastern Uganda, wrote to the CBD's scientific advisory body last year saying there was little knowledge about the potential health and environmental risks of using Terminator technology.

"Uganda has no systems in place to monitor any negative impacts of the new GMO technology called GURTS or 'Terminator'," FLORINET said.

Individual farmers, once informed about the technology, have also expressed concern.

A farmer in Bushenyi district in western Uganda said on condition of anonymity that if farmers are forced to buy seeds every season, they will become dependent on multinational companies controlling the production and sale of these seeds.

"Farmers in poor countries will lose their seed saving practices and seed heritage thus losing ownership, sovereignty, independence, and dignity. We shall also lose export markets in countries that have rejected GM foods," she added.

Cross-pollination fears

One of the main fears farmers have is over the environmental effects of Terminator seeds - that they may cross-pollinate with non-GM plants in neighbouring fields and make the indigenous crops sterile too.

"If the indigenous crops are contaminated with GMOs or Terminator through cross-pollination, it will destroy the local seed biodiversity and it will be difficult for the affected farmers to claim for compensation from the seed companies because it's not easy to provide scientific proof," said Christopher Benon Kababi, a bean and maize corn farmer at Mbarara in south-western Uganda.

"Besides, poor farmers won't be able to pay for expensive legal action," he added.

While most Ugandan farmers that Panos spoke to were strongly opposed to terminator seeds, a small minority saw in them an opportunity to increase profits.

Mbarara farmer Elkad Bakeihahoki, who harvests 100 bags of indigenous maize corn each season said: "I have never grown the GM crops or Terminator seeds. But I like improved varieties, so if Terminator seeds are commercialised and they yield well, I would buy and plant them."

But Jeconious Musingwire, south-western zonal officer for the government's National Environmental Management Authority urged caution. "Terminator and other GM varieties may have a disastrous impact on the environment, and communities have the right to say 'no'," he said.

"Governments should ask seed manufacturing corporations to carry out independent social, environmental and economic impact analysis and report this to the affected communities."

'No GM seeds for planting' - minister

Minister for agriculture, fisheries and animal husbandry, Mary Mugyenyi was categorical that the Uganda government has not accepted GM seeds, including Terminator seeds, for planting.

"We don't accept GM seeds for planting at all. We only accept modified [GM] food like maize flour but not seeds for planting," Mugyenyi told Panos.

The government's position was articulated forcefully at the Granada CBD meeting where the Ugandan representative spoke on behalf of all African countries.

"Perhaps the impacts of GURTs would not be felt more than on the African continent, where 90 per cent of all seed planted is from farm-saved sources; and where most of the farmers are small-scale subsistence farmers, predominantly local and indigenous communities," David Hafashimana told the meeting.

"The basis of survival of biological diversity lies in the ability of all living organisms not only to live and die, but to replace themselves before they die," he added.

Campaigners, scientists unite

African campaigners are also worried that further liberalisation of international trading rules - being negotiated at the UN World Trade Organisation - may ease the entry of Terminator and other GMOs into countries such as Uganda, where the use of GM seeds and plants is banned.

The forum also heard the CBD's own scientific advisors advocate caution, and African NGOs slam the move to overturn the moratorium.

The CBD's Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) was clear in its assessment: "In the current absence of reliable data on GURTs, without which there is inadequate basis on which to assess their potential risks, and in accordance with the precautionary approach, products incorporating such technologies should not be approved by parties for field testing" until further tests had been carried out and their results made known to farmers.

Additionally, a coalition of African NGOs told the meeting: "We find bewildering the insistence by industry, and the countries that are promoting the use of GURTS (Australia, Canada, the US and New Zealand), that this technology will lead to food security and improved yields. We can only shake our heads in wonder at the logic. To us it is obvious. There can be no food security if there are sterile seeds," they said.

"Perhaps it is harder for those from developed countries to appreciate what seed means to us. But let us assure you that when we have described this technology to farmers, their response is one of disbelief, fear and outrage."


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