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Reprinted with permission of WEDO from the original at
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News & Views (Volume 12, Number 3, November 1998)
Women's Environment & Development Organization (WEDO)
355 Lexington Avenue, NY, NY 10017
Tel: (212) 973-0325; Fax: (212) 973-0335;

High-Tech Killers at the Gate

By Helen Howard, Special Projects Coordinator

A worldwide protest has been ignited by a killer technique that genetically alters seeds so that they will not germinate if replanted. This high-tech killer was created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the world’s largest cotton seed company, Delta & Pine Land Co. Together, they received a U.S. patent last March. Quickly recognizing the potential of this patent, the giant U.S. agricultural chemical corporation, Monsanto, which entered the seed industry three years ago, agreed to buy Delta & Pine for $1.8 billion two months later. Governments, farmers, scientists, environmental and women’s rights groups, and individuals worldwide are vigorously protesting against this “Terminator technology,” as critics are calling it.

World's Leading
Seed Companies

The top 10 seed industry
giants now have 30 percent of
the $23 billion commercial seed
trade worldwide. Their sales
have increased 25 percent
in the past two years.

1997 SEED
Pioneer Hi-Bred International (U.S.) $1,784
Monsanto 1,320*
Novartis (Switzerland) 928
Groupe Limagrain (France) 686
Advanta (UK and Netherlands) 437
AgriBiotech, Inc. (U.S.) 425
Grupo Pulsar/Seminis/ELM (Mexico) 375
Sakata (Japan) 349
KWS AG (Germany) 329
Takii (Japan) 300*
* Estimated Source: RAFI

However, these worldwide protests are falling on deaf ears in Washington, D.C., or at least at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as negotiations for an exclusive marketing license are underway between the USDA and Monsanto’s subsidiary, Delta & Pine. “We are anxious to get it finalized,” Dr. Michael Ruff, Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Office of Technology Transfer at the Agricultural Research Service, told WEDO in late September. The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants this technology to be “widely licensed and made expeditiously available to many seed companies,” said Willard Phelps, a USDA spokesman. According to him, the goal is “to increase the value of proprietary seeds owned by U.S. companies and to open new markets in second and third world countries.” The USDA and Delta & Pine have applied for Terminator patents in some 78 countries.

Since this high-tech killer technique is designed to prevent the replanting of future generations of seeds, farmers around the world will be forced to buy their seeds every year at a hefty cost. The U.S. Department of Agriculture admits that the purpose of this Terminator technology is to produce seeds that cannot be replanted, so that the seed companies can recoup their multi-year investment and develop improved varieties.

In its October 19 Fact Sheet, “Why USDA’s Technology Protection System (aka Terminator) Benefits Agriculture,” the USDA states that the “Technology Protection System uses a genetic engineering approach to prevent unwanted germination of seeds.” The USDA states that because farmers save the seeds of non-hybrid crops for replanting in the next growing season, “companies are often reluctant to make research investments in many crops because they cannot recoup their multiyear investment in developing improved varieties through sales in one year.” On the possibility of the Terminator technology hurting farmers by ending the practice of saving seeds, the USDA says, “Few U.S. farmers do this; it is much more common in other countries.”

It’s hard to believe that the Terminator technology won’t have devastating effects on the livelihoods of farmers everywhere including some 1¼ billion women farmers worldwide. They will no longer be able to save seeds or breed improved varieties as they have for the past 12,000 years, while the giant seed corporations will be raking in $20 billion by the year 2010, according to International Seed Federation’s bottom-line projections for genetically engineered seeds.

It's no wonder that Monsanto has been “going whole hog” this year, as CNN Financial News reported on February 11, to become the second largest seed company in the world. After the purchase of Delta & Pine last May, Monsanto went on a two-month buying spree snapping up seed businesses at way above their market value in the race to monopolize overseas markets. These purchases included two of the world’s top ten seed companies, DeKalb Plant Genetics based in Illinois for $2.3 billion, and Cargill, headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota for $1.4 billion. From Unilever in the U.K., Monsanto added Plant Breeding International of Cambridge to its group for $525 million. The company also entered into a joint venture with MAHYCO (Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Limited), one of the largest hybrid seed companies in India, acquiring a 26 percent stake by paying approximately 24 times its paid-up value. “Monsanto’s insatiable appetite for seed companies is clearly driven by its quest to sell proprietary, genetically engineered traits in the global market,” was how RAFI put it in a recent communiqué.

Vandana Shiva at RAFI-led int'l demo at Monsanto HQ
Board member Vandana Shiva at the RAFI-led
international demonstration at Monsanto HQ

In June, Monsanto thought it had reached its apex by agreeing to merge, in a $35 billion stock swap, with American Home Products, the largest agricultural chemical company and the second largest seed company in the world. This merger was considered one of the largest ever, and would have created a $96 billion corporation. In addition to controlling 85 percent of the U.S. cotton seed market, Monsanto would have 33 percent of the soybean market and 15 percent of the maize seed business in the U.S. However, plans for this mega-merger suddenly collapsed on October 13. Despite this setback, Monsanto President Robert Shapiro says the vision of his company is the same even though the opportunity to move years ahead in one fell swoop had been lost, according to a New York Times news story on October 14.

Searching for Global Partners

With Monsanto’s urgent push to establish global business partners, even Mohammad Yunus, President of the pro-poor Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, got caught up in the largess of this predatory monopoly. On June 25 at the Microcredit Summit Meeting of Councils in New York, Shapiro and Yunus announced a partnership between Monsanto and Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank to create the Grameen Monsanto Centre. The Monsanto-financed Centre was to provide “environment-friendly technologies” to the poor in Bangladesh. Environmental and women’s rights groups and individuals around the world immediately challenged Grameen’s decision to team up with Monsanto. Among them was Vandana Shiva, President of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in India, founder of Diverse Women for Diversity and a founding board member of WEDO.

In an open letter to Yunus in early July Shiva reminded him of Grameen’s humble beginnings and charged that the partnership with Monsanto was a reversal of his early goals. “When a few decades ago, you gave a few hundred Takas from your pocket to rural women in Bangladesh who were in the grip of a famine, you started a movement...which used microcredit to enable women to use their skills, their knowledge, and their resources to build local markets for their products, rejuvenate their livelihoods and hence improve their food entitlements. When you announced your joint venture with Monsanto, you reversed that movement and took a step to betray the interests of the women you have served so far.”

Far from building on the skills, knowledge and resources of the Bangladesh women, she said, linking the microcredit scheme to the proposed centre would create markets only for Monsanto’s products while local products would be wiped out, destroying livelihoods and food security.

On July 27, Yunus backed out, announcing he was abandoning the project because of opposition from environmental groups that accused Monsanto of using the Grameen Bank’s network of rural borrowers to market its products.

Indications are that Monsanto hasn’t given up its efforts to do business in Bangladesh, and that activists are just as determined to keep the company out. As reported by Farida Akhter of UBINIG, an NGO in Bangladesh, Monsanto’s vice-president in charge of development, Horacio Navaretti, arrived unannounced in Dhaka on August 30 to be greeted by a joint UBINIG/SANFEC (South Asian Network on Food, Ecology and Culture) protest rally in front of the Pan-Pacific Sonargaon Hotel where he was staying. Protesters carried banners with slogans such as, “MR. HORACIO, PLEASE GO BACK,” “WE DO NOT WANT MONSANTO,” “MONSANTO IS A MONSTER,” and “MONSANTO IS ANTI-FARMER.”

Supporters for Genetic Engineering

Despite the protests, however, some strange bedfellows are popping up as spokesmen for the pro-biotrade group. For instance -- Georgia peanut farmer, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. His well-timed op-ed article in The New York Times entitled, “Who’s Afraid of Genetic Engineering?” appeared in the August 26 edition while the intergovernmental biosafety negotiations were taking place in Montreal among the signatories to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity. The piece seemed like a thinly disguised attempt to give the impression that the biosafety negotiations comprised an “ad hoc team of experts” held captive by environmentalists and “extremist groups.” In truth, these experts and environmentalists represented the 174 countries that have ratified the Convention.

Unfortunately The Times did not print any challenging views. An unpublished response submitted by Vandana Shiva, who attended the Montreal negotiations, said Carter was misleading the public by claiming it was possible to predict the environmental effects by reviewing past experiences with plants and animals produced through selective breeding.

“Genetically engineered crops differ from conventional crops because they carry genes from animals, bacteria or other plants, and these novel genes in crops will have ecological impacts that are different from conventional crops,” she wrote.

Shiva ended her letter by emphasizing the dangers of genetic engineering and the need for safeguards: “Genetic engineering without biosafety will create destitution and hunger in the Third World. The Third World will be the real loser without biosafety, not because of it. Those who respect the democratic and environmental rights of citizens and future generations and who would like to see diverse species protected and flourish, should join the global call for a strong biosafety law to protect humans and other species.”

While the rest of the world is protesting this Terminator technology, the general U.S. public is basically unaware of what is taking place, since, to date, the Terminator doesn’t seem to have enough sex appeal for the mainstream media to investigate what the USDA has created and what it is now negotiating away.

Although it is now deep in the process of negotiating an exclusive marketing license with Monsanto/Delta & Pine for this controversial technology, which will take two to six months, the Agriculture Department has carried out no feasibility studies of the impact of this technology on the U.S. economy or on the rest of the world.

Protectionism is a main interest, says Melvin J. Oliver, a USDA molecular biologist and the primary inventor of the Terminator. “Our mission is to protect U.S. agriculture, and to make us competitive in the face of foreign competition,” Oliver told RAFI in March. “Without this, there is no way of protecting the technology (patented seeds).”

Months later, in an interview with Mojo Wire, the online version of Mother Jones magazine, he claimed the Terminator provided a way to put “billions of dollars spent on research back into the system.” But when Mojo Wire called Oliver again to ask exactly whose billions would be recouped by the Terminator technology, Oliver said that he had been instructed not to speak to the press any further. “This is a shocking example of corporate welfare,” commented Hope Shand, research director of RAFI-USA.

The USDA’s Michael Ruff doesn’t agree. “We want to make every effort to get our technology out in accordance with the Federal Technology Transfer Act that Congress passed in 1986,” he told WEDO. This Act and various other Federal laws make the transfer of new technology to the private sector and industry a responsibility of all Federal research agencies, according to the USDA Fact Sheet. When it was suggested that thousands of farmers would be ruined because the Terminator seeds could not be regenerated, while big seed companies stood to make huge profits, Ruff shrugged it off. “They don’t have to buy the seeds,” he said. “We charge what is normal for a particular market. We are not here to make money.”

Beyond Protectionism

But in the final analysis, the growing controversy over the Terminator technology is not simply a matter of the U.S. government doling out gifts to giant corporations and then promoting their business overseas as globalization coups. This technology not only involves the nature of future generations of plants and crops but the very lives of millions of men, women and children, including small U.S. farmers, that the U.S. government purports to care about. Can the profit motive be justification enough for a fundamentally anti-life technology?

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