Monsanto Bows to a Biotech Backlash

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Seldom has a company caught so much heat for a product it didn't invent, didn't make and didn't even yet have the rights to. But then again, seldom has there been a product as elegantly spooky as the bit of biotechnology known as Terminator. On Tuesday, agribiz giant Monsanto promised not to impose on its customers a technology that renders seeds sterile after the plant has ended its growth cycle. The boys down in the Monsanto accounting department saw this as an ingenious way to protect the company's investment by forcing farmers to buy new bags of their super-productive seeds such as the bioengineered Bt corn instead of planting seeds culled from the previous year's crop.

The technology in question was developed by a cotton company, Delta and Pine Land, for which Monsanto is spending $1 billion. Some activists were concerned about a future where farmers are locked into the local seed store for their livelihood, while others feared that the suicide genes could cross-pollinate with other plants, creating widespread sterility. "Monsanto bowed to public pressure," says TIME science writer Jeffrey Kluger. "This technology is still several years down the road, so there wasn't any immediate payoff, and it was costing them quite a bit in terms of p.r."

Terminator isn't terminated just yet. Monsanto says it will press on with its attempted purchase of Delta (which is under federal antitrust review), and will use the technology to help with other biotech experiments. Meanwhile, the company says it will continue to investigate other ways to protect its copyrighted seeds without making your tomatoes barren.