Programmed to kill

  • 30/08/1998

SEEDSAVERS of crops worldwide face an unprecedented threat. A technology, appropriately called the 'terminator technology', has been creating waves in agricultural circles since March. So much so that it has jolted the normally somnolent agriculture ministry of the government of India into some sort of action.

On July 17, minister of state for agriculture, Som Pal, replying to a question in the Rajya Sabha, stated that the government had imposed a ban on the import of seeds containing the terminator gene. These seeds stay alive only for one generation. This means that the farmer then has to buy expensive patented seeds each time he sows the crop. If a better seed is available in the market, the farmer can only avail himself of it if he pays every time, or else, the farmer is denied the fruits of the progress made in research laboratories. Tough luck.

In March, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a company, Delta and Pine Land Company, were awarded a US patent for a technology they had developed. The technology makes it possible to genetically alter a seed in such a manner that it will not germinate if planted a second time. Currently under testing for cotton and tobacco, the technology has the potential of being applicable to other seeds as well. In other words, if a seed with this gene is planted, the crop and seeds from the harvest, saved and used for sowing the next season, will not germinate.

Patents have been applied for in 78 countries, most of them in the South. India's name has not been included. The patent is broad and applies to seeds of all species, including those genetically altered within the laboratory. Still to be perfected, the technology poses a threat to the environment and biodiversity.

The technology is also programmed to annihilate a tradition being followed by farmers everywhere. Ever since humans tamed wild edible plants and began cultivation, farming communities have been saving seeds from one harvest for the next. Based on experience and instinct, farmers all over the world, more so in the world's poor countries, have improved varieties literally in their backyard. Women play a significant role in this process. So possessive are they of these seeds, especially in societies where this practice still exists, that the seeds are often hidden from the rest of the household and used only for sowing and not consumption. It was this saved seed which came to the help of Africa in times of drought when all crops were wiped out. New high-yield varieties have been possible only through biodiversity obtained from marginal farmers. The terminator technology will curtail this kind of experimentation, severely reducing biodiversity as well as the independence of farmers.

According to a Canadian non-governmental organisation (NGO), that first spread the word about the technology, up to 1.4 billion farmers in resource-poor countries in the South depend upon farm-saved seed.

Merely a century ago, farmers worldwide controlled their own seed stocks, trading them freely with their neighbours. In the Garhwal hills, for instance, after a few cropping seasons farmers still exchange seeds to minimise the risk of pest and disease attack.

The situation is now changing. With the seeds being patented by companies, farmers have to pay for what has always been theirs.

It is this seed-storing tendency of farmers that has been the source of immense irritation to seed companies. The USDA desires that the technology be licensed to as many seed companies as possible so that they recover their investment. The other side is that the hold over the control of seeds will be tightened. In a show of patriotism, it cites protection of its technology as the motive. It is another matter that the various seeds aimed for protection have their roots in other countries, mostly in the South.

This use of this technology could lead to other problems. Pollen from plants containing these genes could pollinate the crops of adjoining fields. The seeds of this crop will also become sterile. All this would gradually result in a reduction of biodiversity.

Som Pal states that seed import permits will be issued only if the permit issuing authorities are convinced that the seeds do not contain the terminator gene. It is all very well for the agriculture ministry to show some concern for Indian farmers. It is probably easier to ban a product than come out with some legislation that protects farmers' rights. But the Indian government has been known to show a tremendous lack of enthusiasm in protecting the interests of farmers.

If one were to look at the research purely from an academic angle, it is an elegant piece of work, a brilliant concept. However, rather than looking only at the commercial angle and forcing farmers of poor countries to pay for seeds season after season, if the scientists had widened their horizon just a little and applied the same concept to terminate defective genes being passed from one generation to another, such as cystic fibrosis, or haemophilia, their contribution to society would have been invaluable. And the money would continue to pour in. Genetic engineering would have scored a big hit.

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