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On March 3, 1998, Delta & Pine Land Co. (the world’s largest cotton seed company with a 73% share of the U.S. market) and the USDA received U.S. patent #5,723,765 for a new genetic technology designed to render seed-saving by farmers impossible. Dubbed the “Terminator Technology” by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), it would enable seed companies to create genetically altered varieties programmed by their DNA to kill their own embryos, producing sterile seed.
Although it has been tested so far only on cotton and tobacco, it is believed to have broad application to the seeds of all species, including self-pollinators which reproduce true to type. The world’s two largest food crops, rice and wheat, as well as several others of great importance (including soybeans, oats and sorghum), are self-pollinated. The ease of saving seed from these crops has kept control of the seed in the hands of farmers and mostly out of commerce until now. That could change dramatically if Terminator Technology reaches the marketplace.
According to RAFI, USDA spokesperson Willard Phelps said the agency “wants the technology to be widely licensed and made expeditiously available to many seed companies” so as to “increase the value of proprietary seed owned by U.S. seed companies and to open up new markets in second and third world countries.” Molecular biologist Melvin J. Oliver, its primary inventor, justified it as a “way . . . to protect the technology of patented seed.” The patent holders have targeted 87 countries, many in the developing world or the economically ravaged former Soviet Bloc.
The USDA, which 100 years ago donated seed to farmers, invested almost $200,000 of taxpayer money on the Terminator Technology, and stands to make royalties of about 5% of any net sales. The little-known Technology Transfer Act of 1986 allows such arrangements and these days the agency is collaborating in all sorts of creative ventures with the private sector, helping develop a roster of ideas and products that would do credit to the most off-the-wall sci-fi writer.
Only nine weeks after the release of the Terminator patent, Monsanto announced the purchase of Delta & Pine, as well as the takeover of DeKalb Genetics (the nation’s 2nd largest maize company), the Cargill International Seed Division and Plant Breeding International, capping an $8 billion acquisitions spree in only two years. The new takeovers made Monsanto the dominant player in the U.S. maize market (15% share), soybean market (33% share) and cotton market (85% share!). Even though American Home Products Corporation’s proposed $33.9 billion buyout of Monsanto recently fell through, The New York Times speculated that more mergers might be in the works for Monsanto, including possibly one with agribusiness giant Novartis. The recent consolidations spearheaded by the genetic engineering revolution leave the ten largest firms in control of 30% of the world seed trade. Monsanto’s 75+% share of the 65 million acres of genetically engineered crops grown worldwide in 1998 may be an even more accurate representation of the degree of concentration in the industry. The global market for genetically engineered seeds is expected to increase tenfold over the next decade.
Terminator may be understood as the final step in the transition from a land-based farmer-controlled system to a capital-based business-dominated system. With the Terminator, total control of the seed will have passed from the farm to the mega-corporation. From the development of hybridization in the 1920s to the passage of the seed patenting law in 1970 to Monsanto’s restrictive licensing agreements of the 1990s (which required farmers to give up their right to save, replant, or transfer any seed from their Roundup Ready crops) to the Terminator Technology of the milennium, we have been traveling along the same continuum. Each step made it harder to save seed and took power and control out of the hands of the growers and into the corporations. Even if we can stop the commercialization of the Terminator we still must contend with the economic consequences of transgenics—huge corporations run amok with unrestrained greed, unsafe genetically engineered varieties spreading across the countryside like a wildfire out of control. In just two years genetically engineered field corn has increased from almost none of the crop to over a third. And sweet corn is next!
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