Life after Suicide? New Seeds, New Threats

28 April 2014 Feature
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The IUF is pleased to publish the second in a series of articles on new food and agricultural technologies and their implications from the ETC Group (formerly RAFI), a civil society organization with which the IUF has collaborated for many years. In 1999, the IUF joined the call for a moratorium on Terminator seeds, seeds patented for sterility. The moratorium has held, but is now under attack.

Terminator seeds may soon crop up in a field near you.  The "suicide seeds" that die at harvest time (requiring new seed purchases every sowing season) have languished under a UN moratorium since 2000 but may be legalized this year in Brazil, where two bills that have been stalled in the Brazilian Congress for years may sneak into legislation sometime between the FIFA World Cup this June and Brazil's national elections in early October.  If either bill passes, Brazilian diplomats will move preemptively to avoid global condemnation by "reinterpreting" the moratorium when the UN Biodiversity Convention holds its biennial meeting in Korea in mid-October.  

Terminator boosters and lobbyists are rebranding the super-profitable seeds as a biosafety move to protect food crops from so-called "bioreactor" crops (i.e. trees and sugarcane with Genetically-engineered traits designed for plastics, fuels, pharmaceuticals, etc.) that might otherwise cross into foods.  

Consternation over the Brazilian bills led to a worldwide petition signed by almost 69,000 individuals and organizations. Brazil's move is all the more shocking because the party currently in power helped beat back multinational seed company efforts to overturn the moratorium in 2006 when the Biodiversity Convention met in Curitiba, Brazil.

Early in the new millennium, the world's three largest seed companies (Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta), with 54% of the global commercial seed market, were forced to publicly promise not to commercialize Terminator. Despite this, the biggest seed companies - and some public breeders like Brazil's Embrapa (closely connected to multinationals) - have continued researching the sterile seed technology, claiming patents, and developing even more worrisome technologies.

In 2006, for example, ETC Group discovered patent applications for Zombie seeds - seeds that die at harvest time but can be resuscitated when bathed in the seed company's proprietary chemicals. As an extreme form of Terminator, zombie seeds are also constrained by the moratorium.

With the consumer blockade against GM seeds still strong - and the UN Terminator moratorium in place - the multinationals are looking for other avenues to monopoly profits.    At least nine other techniques are being actively developed and companies are insisting that the seeds are not GMOs and no regulations are required.

Not all the techniques are new, in fact, some have been around a long time such as gamma, x-ray and chemical mutagenesis which first emerged during the Cold War.  All of these techniques are flying below the radar; all are in commercial use; and none are adequately regulated.

The newest technique, synthetic biology, has massive health, environmental and economic implications for farmers, food processors, agricultural workers and consumers.  But the oldest strategy to breed a "non-GMO" GMO through gamma and x-ray mutagenesis has returned in force and deserves immediate attention.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, gamma and x-ray  induced mutation began with the Dutch in Indonesia 80 years ago. During the Cold War, breeders described themselves as "Frankensteins" and their plots as "Gamma gardens". Radiation breeding waned and was winding down by the 1990s when GMOs first arrived on the scene.   When GMOs ran into opposition, radiation mutation quietly started up again. In 2013, Bloomberg News estimated that 3000 plant varieties involving 200 crops  have been commercialized.  Radiation breeding now has a major role in Italy's durum wheat (pasta) production, barley production almost everywhere, soybeans and rice in China and Southeast Asia and rust resistant wheat in East Africa.  Last year at least 31 countries were engaged in radiation breeding - four more than allow GMOs. In 2004, the US National Academy of Sciences warned that radiation breeding techniques require as much or more scrutiny as "conventional" GMOs, because gamma ray bombardment can cause far more mutations that biotech's gene transfers.
Terminator's future may change with Brazil's October elections. Terminator and the other new breeding technologies may have to be on the Biodiversity Convention's agenda, also this October.  The Cartagena Protocol  may apply. It is equally crucial that these technologies be on the agenda of the UN's Committee on World Food Security when it meets in Rome this October.