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Terminators Galore!

The author is Professor Emeritus at the University of Western Ontario.

In Canada, the Seed Sector Review advisory committee issued a report calling for changes to legislation to (A) collect royalties on farm-saved seeds, (B) compel farmers to buy officially certified seed, and © terminate the right of farmers to sell common seed. The report was financed by the Agriculture Ministry at a cost of nearly a million dollars to the Canadian taxpayers but essentially rubber-stamped the demands of multinational agricultural corporations1. The onerous licensing requirements of the biotechnology industry are to be extended to all seeds, imposing a form of serfdom on any remaining independent farmers. In the future it is likely that even home gardeners will face the loony corporate payments for those willing to spy on neighbors and report covert seed activity. We may be entering a time when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are required to raid grow operations such as a row of radishes in a backyard garden.

The development of “terminator” technology goes hand in hand with the corporate move to control production and use of seeds. Terminator technology is the use of genetic engineering to produce seeds that can be used only once. The progeny of such seeds would either produce no flowers or produce seeds that provide grain or oil but cannot germinate to produce as new plants. In other words, terminator blocks viable seed production, production of pollen or ovule or the production of flowers. The first terminators were developed by the United Sates Department of Agriculture (USDA) and corporate interests, and that technology was patented jointly by the corporation and USDA. As in Canada, the regulator of genetically modified (GM) crops also acts as an advocate and commercial developer of such crops (a clear conflict of interest).

The first terminator patent was granted to USDA and The Delta and Pineland Corporation (later joined to Monsanto Corporation) in 1999. That patent provoked a flurry of opposition both on the basis of the fundamental right of farmers to save seed and on the scientific ground that the genetic changes might harm those consuming the crops. In response to those concerns Monsanto Corporation backed off from immediate production of terminator seeds. But in spite of that action a great deal of government sponsored research in the U.S. has focused on development of terminator technology to provide financial benefits for corporations.

Beginning in 1999, the Institute of Science in Society in London, England has distributed a number of reports by Dr. MaeWan Ho and myself. In those reports we described the genetic technology of the original and later biotechnology inventions234567. The basic design of the constructions has been to prevent reproductive tissue from developing in a way that allows the seed producer to maintain fertile lines that can be maintained but also trigger the production of commercial seed lines that cannot produce pollen or eggs, or produce lines that lack flowers. The genes used to produce such lines usually involve reproductive cell ablation (cell suicide genes) using toxins such as barnase ribonuclease that digests cellular RNA, diptheria toxin or excess phytohormone production in the reproductive tissue. In some cases anti-sense genes have been used to block reproductive cells from maturing. Anti-sense genes are complementary copies of the RNA gene messages governing reproductive cell maturation forming double stranded RNA that is recognized as an invading virus by the plant cell and destroyed.

During the 1990s a startling new discovery in plant molecular genetics led to the identification of homeotic genes that govern the pathways leading to cell differentiation. These specify proteins produced by short stretches of DNA called MADS-boxes. These are the regions controlling transcription of the genes involved in formation of reproductive tissue, leaves, roots and branches that govern plant development8. That discovery has led to a flood of inventions employing the MADS-boxes transcription factors to control flowering and gamete production as terminators in trees and in crops. Steven Strauss of the US Forest Service in Oregon has been field testing poplar trees modified with cell suicide genes to eliminate flowering and plans to extend that system to shade trees. Finnish researchers at Sopanen University are developing this for sterile silver birch9. Along with concerns about the cell suicide toxins and their impact on animal life, the sterile trees must be propagated asexually and thus lack genetic diversity. This renders them sensitive to attack by emerging pathogens and without a reservoir of diversity to mitigate the attack of the novel pathogen. A flood of patent applications has begun to appear for control of flowering or sexual development in both evergreen trees and crop plants10.

A flood of terminator trees and crops has been developed using government funding and in some cases by government researchers. The main scientific objection to such terminators has been the introduction of untested and hazardous toxins such as cell suicide toxins. As well, the technology would result in genetic uniformity in forest expanses and in crop lands rendering the trees and crops likely susceptible to plagues resulting from the spread of emerging pathogens because the forests and crops lack the reservoir of genetic diversity needed to counter novel pathogens. The inventions will drive farmers and foresters into serfdom at the behest of corporations and their lackeys in the government bureaucracy.

Is it too late to terminate the terminators? It is not too late, but once they begin to crowd out natural trees and crops it will be too late. What can be done? We will soon have to have an international convention to limit use of terminators. In the meantime it is wise to alert the public to the extensive public funding of technologies that threaten the farm community and public alike and benefit corporations and their stockholders exclusively.


1 Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, “The report of the seed sector advisory committee 2004”. · ^

2 Ho, MW and Cummins J. “Chronicle of an Ecological Disaster Foretold.” ISIS Report, 20 February 2003; also Science in Society 2003, Spring, 18, 26-27. ^

3 Ho, MW. “Terminator technologies in new guises.” ISIS News 3, December 1999. ^

4 Cummins J. “Terminator gene product alert.” ISIS News 6, September 2000. ^

5 Ho, MW, Cummins J and Bartlett J. “Killing fields near you: Terminator crops at large.” ISIS News 7/8, February 2001. ^

6 Ho, MW and Cummins J. “Terminator patents decoded.” ISIS News 11/12, October 2001. ^

7 Cummins, J. and Ho, MW, “New terminator crops coming.” · ^

8 Cummins, J. “View from MADS house.” · ^

9 Cummins, J. and Ho, MW. “Terminator Trees.” · ^

10 Cummins, J. “Lurking terminators.” (in preparation). ^

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