The Science Terminators.

January 01, 1999  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Forbes Magazine  ·  Biotech

Bad news on the technology front: We won’t get so-called suicide seeds after all. This was a clever scheme for rewarding agricultural research.

A company that poured a fortune into developing a new strain of corn, soybeans or the like would endow the seed with a gene that would make the next generation of seeds sterile. Thus, farmers who wanted to keep growing the crop would have to buy new seed every year.

The technology was developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a cottonseed company that Monsanto was planning to purchase.

Fair enough, right? If the farmer viewed the improvement in crop yields as not worth the price, he could always go back to whatever seed source he was using before.

But the idea ran head-on into an anti-agribusiness, antibiotech crowd. It was labeled the "terminator" seed project. Syndicated columnist Molly Ivins called it "nightmarish." An antibiotech group said it was "industrial imperialism." A British charity declared that the technology would destroy Third World societies.

Hybrid corn - "terminators" dating back to the 1920s.

Succumbing to the pressure, the St. Louis-based Monsanto announced on Oct. 4 that it will not commercialize any seed technology that renders plants sterile. DuPont and the Swiss Novartis AG have also promised not to use the technology.

Why did Monsanto turn chicken-hearted? Because it has a huge amount at stake in biotechnology, and it is very much on the defensive these days in the public relations arena. Monsanto has been devastated by the backlash that the greens have whipped up against its biotech crops.

God forbid that someone like Molly Ivins finds out about hybrid corn. That seed, made by cross-pollinating two varieties of corn, grows into immensely productive plants, but the crop yields deteriorate with each new generation. So farmers keep buying new bags of seed. Hybrid corn dates back to the 1920s. This was the original terminator seed.

Don’t tell the antibiotech crowd, but hybrid corn, besides making the planet better fed, makes profits for seed producers. Just last year Monsanto paid $2.5 billion to get one of these producers, DeKalb Genetics.

Monsanto can get by without the new terminator genes. Right now, it sells seed to farmers who sign written agreements not to use seed from this year’s crop to plant next year’s field. If enforcement of these contracts sometimes means sending detectives into fields, as it does now, so be it. Monsanto used to have the best science and the worst p.r. in the business. It’s working on the p.r.