Update on the Seed Industry

See other terminator technology articles 1, 3, 4 & 5

The October announcement by Monsanto that they have decided to abandon plans to commercialize Terminator Technology represented a victory for the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI, see page 6) whose effective publicity helped galvanize a worldwide firestorm of protest. (For a broader discussion of this technology designed to render seed-saving by farmers impossible by creating genetically altered varieties that produce sterile seed, see our 1999 catalog.)

But the struggle is far from over. The USDA and cottonseed company Delta & Pine Land (whose prospective buyout by Monsanto has been delayed by an antitrust investigation), joint patent holders of the Terminator, have made no such disavowals. USDA continues to defend the technology. (See page 8, “Your Tax Dollars at Work.”) Research by RAFI has revealed that all of the major seed industry behemoths, including Monsanto, Novartis, AstraZeneca, DuPont, BASF, and Aventis, have similar patents in the works. The next generation of technologies will create packages which, induced by proprietary chemical activators, can control multiple factors such as acceleration or stunting of plant growth, reproductive viability, and disease or herbicide resistance. The aim of the gene giants is not just to discourage seed saving or replanting but to make farmers totally dependent on the seed company, and ultimately to control the entire food system from seed to table. Terminator is only the most visible and dramatic manifestation of the potential impact of genetic engineering on our lives.

Terminator (still years away from being ready for the marketplace) turned into a massive public-relations nightmare for the gene giants, catalyzing opposition to genetic engineering (GE). Direct actions against GE experiments have spread from India and Europe to the States, including Maine where a group called “Seeds of Resistance” took credit for chopping down a University of Maine experimental GE corn field in Old Town. More significantly, European opposition to genetically altered corn and soybeans has impacted markets to the extent that even the giant Archer Daniels Midland has been forced to segregate GE from non-GE crops, after insisting for years that legislation requiring labeling of GE foods was completely unworkable because segregating would be impossibly expensive. Market forces are likely to bring the geometric increase of GE crop acreage (from 2 million hectares in 1996 to almost 28 million in 1998) to a rude halt.

Research performed by Cornell University entomologists showing that pollen from corn plants genetically engineered to produce insecticidal Bacillus thuringiensis toxin can harm larvae of the monarch butterfly underscored the unforeseen risks in rushing these technologies to market without adequate prior testing.

Starting with an introspective article by Michael Pollan in the New York Times Magazine in October 1998 in which he shared his conundrum about whether to eat the GE NewLeaf potato (he didn’t), the GE controversy has rapidly spread into mainstream media. In the next five years we are likely to see a pitched battle for the hearts and minds of Americans as polarized as those over the Vietnam War and abortion.

Meanwhile, consolidations in the seed industry by “life science” companies (as they like to call themselves) continue, with Dupont’s $7.7 billion purchase of Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Hoechst’s merger with Rhone-Poulenc to form Aventis, among the latest. The top five companies now control 75% of the global vegetable seed market. A landmark study by Dr. William Heffernan of the Dept. of Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri shows similar levels of concentration throughout the food industry, for example, the top four processors in each industry control 79% of the beef packing market, 62% of flour milling, 49% of broilers and 80% of soybean milling, with the same names appearing on many of the lists.

An increasing number of wonderful quirky small seed companies specializing in heirloom varieties continue to provide counterpoint to industry trends. Cooperative efforts among these alternative seedspeople are still in fledgling stages, but likely to accelerate in the next few years. Among these are the Farmer Cooperative Genome Project in Oregon and an initiative organized by biodynamic growers centered in New York State.