|'Zombie crops' funded by British taxpayers to 'get round' GM ban (17/6/2007)|
1.'Zombie crops' funded by British taxpayers to 'get round' GM ban
1.'Zombie crops' funded by British taxpayers to 'get round' GM ban
"Zombie" GM crops - so called because farmers will have to pay biotech companies to bring seeds back from the dead - are being developed with British taxpayers' money.
The highly controversial development - part of a GBP3.4m EU research project - is bound to increase concerns about the modified crops and the devastating effect they could have on Third World farmers.
Environmentalists charge that it appears to be an attempt to get round a worldwide ban on a GM technology so abhorred that even Monsanto has said it will not use it.
The ban is on the so-called "terminator technology", which was designed to modify crops so that they produce only sterile seeds. This would force the 1.4 billion poor farmers who traditionally save seeds from one year's harvest to sow for the following one instead to buy new ones from biotech firms, swelling their profits but increasing poverty and hunger.
Since the ban was agreed under a UN treaty seven years ago, companies and pro-GM countries - including the United States and Britain - have pressed to have it overturned, so far without success. But the new technology promises to offer companies an even more profitable way of achieving dominance.
Zombie crops would also be engineered to produce sterile seed that could be brought back to life with the right treatment - almost certainly with a chemical sold by the company that markets the seed. Farmers would therefore have to pay out, not for new seeds, but to make the ones they saved viable.
A report published last week by ETC - the Canada-based Action Group on Erosion Technology and Concentration that led the campaign against terminator technology - calls this "a dream scenario for the Gene Giants".
It says it will be cheaper for them to sell farmers the chemicals to revive saved seeds than to pay the costs of storing and distributing new ones. It adds: "They will initially keep prices low. But once farmers are on the platform, and the competition has been destroyed, the companies can start pricing the chemical that restores seed viability as high as they like. The key point is that the viability of the crop would be controlled by the corporation that sells the seed."
The three-year EU research programme, called Transcontainer, which involves 13 universities and research institutes and is partially funded by taxpayers in Britain and other EU countries, says that it is developing the technology to try to "reduce significantly" the spread of GM genes to conventional and organic crops.
Such contamination - long denied and downplayed by the industry and its supporters - is now accepted to be one of the main obstacles to the advance of modified crops.
ETC's report also says that if the new technology is developed, governments and regulators will insist that all GM crops will have to be engineered to be "zombies" to try to prevent contamination and in the process deliver farmers into complete dependence on the biotech companies.
It adds, however, that no containment strategy is foolproof and that the genes will inevitably spread anyway through pollen.
The Transcontainer project insists that it is "specifically targeted at European agriculture and European crops". But it admits that such technologies "may become a problem for farmers in developing countries."
ETC warns that if the technology is commercialised it will "ultimately be adopted indiscriminately" everywhere. It concludes: "A scenario in which farmers have to pay for a chemical to restore seed viability creates a new perpetual monopoly for the seed industry."
2.Biotech's 'Terminator' sows seeds of discord
OTTAWA - Environmentalists are raising the alarm about the latest development in genetically modified foods -- so-called "zombie seeds" that are programmed to be sterile until treated with a special chemical.
These and other "sexually dysfunctional" seeds are being developed by the biotech industry as a solution to the ongoing problem of genetically modified plants contaminating conventional crops. News of the effort emerges at the same time as the House of Commons is debating a bill to ban the zombie seeds' predecessor -- so-called Terminator seeds, which are programmed to be sterile to prevent contamination.
The question of how to contain genetically modified crops has become urgent as scientists forge ahead with plans to design plants that produce such drugs as antibiotics and industrial chemicals -- plants that all sides agree must not wind up in the food chain.
Wilfred Keller of the federal National Research Council says that, for certain applications, Terminator and its successors "should be welcomed.
"A plant is a tremendous chemical factory that can produce products we all need and want," says Keller, who has worked on Terminator-style seeds in recent years.
Canola, for example, could become a major source of biofuel in coming years; one Calgary-based company is already producing insulin from safflowers, Keller adds from his Saskatoon office.
But Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, an Ottawa-based biotech watchdog group, says the industry is pushing for a "technical fix for a problem its own technology created in the first place," arguing that firms just want to ensure continued control of the seed supply.
Developed in the 1990s, Terminator seeds sparked fears that farmers in poor countries would be forced to buy their seed from industrial producers every year. Critics also worried the seeds would decimate the food supply if the sterility trait were to spread through genetic mutation or cross-pollination to conventional crops.
Brazil and India banned Terminator seeds, and last year the UN Convention on Biological Diversity reaffirmed a 2000 moratorium on the technology.
Now "gene giants" such as Dow are trying to do an end run around the moratorium, says Thomas.
3.Terminator gene: judgment day
These days, nobody is surprised when political contention arises over biotechnology. Though stem cell research and human cloning get a lot of the attention, they are far from the only issues.
For instance, there's an area of research devoted to preventing plants from reproducing.
As with drugs and the pharmaceutical industry, genetically modified plants represent an investment on the part of the company that created them, and such companies want to enact technical and legal measures to ensure they recoup their research costs.
Such technologies are referred to as Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURT). One developed implementation of this technology is a special gene called the "terminator gene." When farmers buy seeds that contain the terminator gene, the plant will grow as usual and the farmer will be able to harvest the crop. However, the next generation of seeds - the ones generated by the crop - will be infertile. If the farmer tries to save those seeds and replant them in order to get the benefit of the bioengineered crop, the seeds just wont germinate. In order to continue growing the crop the farmer has to purchase new seeds year after year. Think of it as copy protection for biology.
While this technology has been developed and tested, it is not available for commercial sale. The Canadian patent for the technology was held by Delta & Pine Land. However, on June 1 the United States Justice Department gave the green light for biotech giant Monsanto to purchase the company; as such, it will inherit the patent. Monsanto has repeatedly stated they do not intend to commercialize the technology.
In a move that would pre-empt the technology from ever being commercialized, Canadian MP and agriculture critic Alex Atamanenko introduced a bill on May 31 that would ban the deployment of terminator technology in Canada.
Atamanenko did not have the time to interview with Imprint before press time, but he supplied a copy of the proposed law. Interestingly enough, not only would this bill ban import or sale of seeds with the terminator gene in Canada, but would also prohibit companies from obtaining patents on the technology in Canada. This caveat would be put on the same footing as the clause that prohibits patents for "any mere scientific principle or abstract theorem."
In a written statement Atamanenko said, "This bill would protect the right of farmers to save seeds. The right of farmers to save seed should not be threatened by this technology that offers no benefits to farmers. The right to save seeds must be protected, even for those farmers in Canada who do not currently practice seed saving."
Its not widely expected this bill will pass, given that Minister of Agriculture Chuck Strahl is against it. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has also taken an adverse stance. On the groups website, they state, "The unfortunately named 'terminator gene' has received much negative press because it has been portrayed as a vehicle for large multi-national seed companies to suppress the freedom of farmers. However, the terminator approach provides an excellent method to protect against transference of novel traits to other crops and plant species."
What CFIA means is the terminator gene could prevent modified genes from becoming expressed in natural plants which could happen through cross-pollination. It would also prevent such modified crops from spreading on their own, which would prevent legal cases such as Monsanto vs. Schmeiser. (The famous lawsuit where chemical giant Monsanto sued farmer Percy Schmeiser for growing Monsantos patented canola variety on his land - despite the fact that the seeds blew over from a neighbouring farm and the crop was growing without his knowledge.)
The flip side of the coin is that the terminator gene itself could be spread to naturally occurring plants through cross pollination - potentially resulting in loss of yield for farmers who are opting not to grow patented plants.
Two other national governments - those of India and Brazil - have already banned this technology.