Hasta la vista, baby! to so-called Terminators

January 01, 1999  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Global Food Quarterly  ·  Biotech

As much hell as the agricultural biotechnology industry is catching these days from environmentalist groups and the media, no aspect of the technology is more reviled and attacked than one that doesn’t even exist. It concerns so-called "terminator" or "suicide seeds."

Succumbing to the pressure, responding to grower concerns, or a combination of the two, the St. Louis-based agri-giant Monsanto Company has announced it will not commercialize any seed technology that renders plants sterile, including "terminators".

Two other agri-giants, Novartis AG and the Dupont Company, have made similar statements.

Although one often hears that Monsanto is already selling the seeds, the technology is probably about five years away, and no one knows if it would be a commercially viable alternative even if the technology were fully developed.

Monsanto doesn’t even hold the patent. Rather, it’s jointly held by the Agriculture Department and Delta Pine and Land, a company Monsanto is seeking to purchase.

If developed, "terminators" would be identical to any other seed whether for corn, soybeans, or other crops except that the harvested seeds would be sterile. Farmers would have to buy new bags yearly.

Molly Ivins, expert on agriculture — and everything else.

For people who have never gotten closer to a farm than watching Green Acres, this is somehow "nightmarish," as syndicated columnist Molly Ivins put it.

One anti-biotech group labeled it "industrial imperialism," putting food supplies at the mercy of seed suppliers. The British charity Christian Aid declared the technology would destroy Third World societies. (It also opposes effective herbicides in those same societies because farmers’ wives and daughters would be denied the opportunity to pull weeds by hand all day long.)

Knowing zip about farming, these detractors cannot know that American hybrid corn essentially puts farmers in the same position as the "suicide seeds" would. Seeds grown from a hybrid crop are not sterile. But their qualities diminish with each passing year.

Thus farmers generally ante up each season for new seeds. And don’t tell Molly Ivins, but corn hybrids are not an evil new invention but rather were developed in the 1920s and first used commercially in the 1930s.

Yet nobody labels hybrid seeds as promoting extortion or "imperialism," probably in part because they don’t know a hybrid from a heifer.

But they do probably realize that no one forces American farmers to buy specific seeds. Farmers purchase what’s most profitable, essentially whatever provides the highest yield for the effort.

Making people think of this when they think of sterile seed technology was a brilliant envirionmentalist move.

Why would this ability of farmers to buy only the best suddenly end with the advent of "terminators"? Then, as now, more costly seed that couldn’t justify its expense would quickly be terminated.

Nobody’s at the mercy of seed suppliers; it’s seed suppliers who are at the mercy of the market.

Far from having an evil purpose, "terminators" would serve a very good one. It would efficiently protect intellectual property rights and huge investments.

The cost of many seeds themselves is nothing compared to the development cost, just as with a CD, DVD, or a video tape, That’s why we pay about $16 for music encoded onto a silvery disk that costs less than $2 to stamp and package. That’s also why software developers and film and music studios make it clear to purchasers that they own the plastic, but that’s all they own. Attempts to make copies are dubbed "piracy," and dealt with seriously when caught.

But there’s the rub. It’s proved very difficult for these companies to build in anti-dubbing protection, so they’ve resorted with very limited success to using detectives and, well, snitches.

An agricultural company that may expend of dollars in developing and field testing a single new crop faces a similar quandary. How do they sell that seed at a price the farmer can afford, but then keep him from "dubbing" those seeds; that is, using seed from the last crop from the next and the next, and so on. How do seed developers keep someone from turning his whole farm into a pirate seed factory?

One method now used is to have farmers sign written agreements not to do so. But enforcement can necessitate using detectives and, yes, snitches. That can lead to costly litigation and bad feelings all around.

Sterile seed technology would do for seed developers what Bill Gates only wishes he could do for his software or Michael Eisner for his videos and DVDs. The contracts, the detectives, the snitches, and the litigation would all terminated.

Further, there’s been tremendous hand-wringing over the possibility that genes with resistance to herbicides can be passed from crops to surrounding weeds if the weeds are of a closely-related species.

Actually, it’s not known whether the resistance genes could be transferred and if so whether they’d be expressed. But one biotech technique can help combat this. Yes, it’s the "terminators". Weeds pollinated by "terminator" plants would themselves become sterile.

By forfeiting development of this technology, the agri-giants have denied both themselves and farmers a real benefit. Yet by seizing a powerful emotional weapon from the opposition, they can gain consumer confidence and portray themselves as the good guys. That, in turn, may be key to preserving the future of agricultural biotechnology for all of us.