The Suicide Seeds

  • For farmers hoping for a healthy harvest, the best place to turn for help these days is the Monsanto Corp. One of the world's leading biotechnology companies--and lately a pioneer in genetically engineered seeds--Monsanto has been incorporating flashy traits like herbicide and pest resistance into everything from canola to corn. But such supercrops don't come cheap. Farmers pay a premium for Monsanto seeds, and to make sure they keep paying, the company requires them to sign an agreement promising not to plant seeds their crops produce. If farmers want the same bountiful harvest next year, they must return to the company for a new load of seeds.

    While this arrangement makes sense for Monsanto, it works only if farmers honor it--something that's difficult to police in the U.S. and almost impossible in the developing world. Now, however, Monsanto hopes to enforce biologically what it can't enforce contractually. With the help of clever genes currently in development, future Monsanto crops may be designed with a new feature in mind: sterility. No sooner will the company's plants mature than the seeds they carry will lose the ability to reproduce.

    From Monsanto's point of view, the set of new genes--which others have dubbed Terminator--is a perfectly legitimate way to protect their intellectual-property rights. Not everybody agrees. And in the 10 months since the patent for the seed-sterilizing technology was issued, Terminator has become the focus of a grass-roots protest that is spreading through the Internet like, well, wildfire.

    Let the new science take hold, opponents warn darkly, and farmers could find themselves coming to Monsanto, seed cup in hand, paying whatever the company demands before they can plant that season's crop. Worse still, some doomsday scenarios suggest, pollen from Terminator plants could drift with the wind like a toxic cloud, cross with ordinary crops or wild plants, and spread from species to species until flora all around the world had been suddenly and irreversibly sterilized.

    No serious scientist thinks anything so dire will come to pass. For Monsanto, however, with a technology in its pocket and a fight on its hands, the situation is about as grim as it can get--at least in terms of public relations. "From a marketing perspective, the technology is brilliant," says biotech critic Jeremy Rifkin. "From a social perspective, it's pathological. This is a question of who controls the seeds of life."

    To get a feel for the p.r. beating Monsanto is taking, check out the Web. Activist groups like Rural Advancement Foundation International are using the Net to rally Terminator opponents, urging them to flood the U.S. Department of Agriculture with letters of protest. At least 4,000 people from 62 countries have responded--an anti-Monsanto army raised by the electronic vox pop alone. "The group R.A.F.I. masterfully called this Terminator," says Gary Toenniessen, deputy director for agricultural science at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York City. "It's not what Monsanto would call it."

    For all the heat Monsanto is taking, the company did not create Terminator. The technology was developed by the USDA and a Mississippi seed company known as Delta and Pine Land, and the patent was awarded to both of them. Monsanto later made a $1 billion-plus offer to buy Delta--an offer that was quickly accepted.

    Opponents don't care who made Terminator. To them the idea is Frankensteinian on its face. After tweezing out a toxin-producing stretch of DNA from a noncrop plant, gene scientists managed to knit the lethal genetic material into the genome of commercial plants. They also inserted two other bits of coding that would keep the killer gene dormant until late in the crop's development, when the toxin would affect only the seed and not the plant. But because the seed company needs to generate enough product to sell in the first place, the scientists included one more DNA sequence--one that repressed all the sterilizing genes they had just inserted. Once they had grown all the seeds they needed, they would soak them in an antibiotic bath that neutralized the genetic repressor--rendering them infertile. "This is the most intricate application of genetic engineering to date," says Margaret Mellon, a senior scientist at the Union for Concerned Scientists.

    But clever science isn't necessarily popular science, and Terminator has made a lot of enemies, particularly in the developing world. The USDA and Delta and Pine Land have filed Terminator patent applications in dozens of countries. In many of those countries farmers can't afford to buy top-of-the-line seeds every year and must rely on saving a portion of each crop in order to plant their fields the following year. Monsanto insists that weak patent protection in many of these countries makes a technology like Terminator especially important. But that argument carries little weight in parts of the world where food bowls are going empty. "This technology brings no benefit to farmers," says Hope Shand, research director of RAFI.

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