Introduction to Terminator Technology

Terminator technology refers to plants that have been genetically modified to render sterile seeds at harvest – it is also called Genetic Use Restriction Technology or GURTS. Terminator technology was developed by the multinational seed/agrochemical industry and the United States government to prevent farmers from saving and re-planting harvested seed. Terminator has not yet been commercialized or field-tested but tests are currently being conducted in greenhouses in the United States.

“Terminator is a direct assault on farmers and indigenous cultures and on food sovereignty. It threatens the well-being of all rural people, primarily the very poorest.”
- Rafael Alegría of Via Campesina, an organization representing over 10 million peasant farmers worldwide.

Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURTs) is the “official” name for Terminator technology that is used at the United Nations and by scientists. It refers to technologies that, in their design, provide a mechanism to switch introduced genes on or off, using external inducers like chemicals or physical stimuli such as heat shock (called an inducible system). This mechanism allows for restricted use or performance of transgenes. There are two tyoes of GURTs technologies that rely on the same mechanism, variety-related or V-GURTs and trait-related or T-GURTs. V-GURTs aim to control reproductive processes to result in seed sterility, thus affecting the viability of the whole variety; T-GURTs aim to control the use of traits such as insect resistance, stress tolerance or production of nutrients. The ability to switch the GURTs mechanism on or off externally would, theoretically, enable control over the viability of seeds or over traits. (Source: EcoNexus www.econexus.info)

Why is Terminator a problem? The top 10 largest seed companies control half the world’s commercial seed market. If Terminator is commercialized, corporations will likely incorporate sterility genes into all their seeds. That’s because genetic seed sterilization would secure a much stronger monopoly than patents — instead of suing farmers for saving seed, companies are trying to make it biologically impossible for farmers to re-use harvested seed.

Canadian farms of all sizes save seeds and this practice is growing as the farm income crisis gets worse each year. Across the world, over 1.4 billion people, primarily small-scale farming families in the developing world, depend on farm-saved seed as their primary seed source. Terminator seeds will force dependence on external seed sources and disrupt the age-old practice of farmer seed selection, exchange and breeding - centuries of Indigenous and farmer seed variety development is the foundation of the Canadian seed stock.

What impact will Terminator seeds have on farmers? Terminator is a major violation of the rights of farmers to save and reuse their own seeds. Through pollen movement in the first generation, Terminator genes could contaminate farmers’ crops - farmers might then unknowingly save and reuse seeds that are contaminated and will not germinate. This could also happen if imported grain contains Terminator genes.

Farmers who depend on humanitarian food aid risk devastating crop loss if they unknowingly use food aid grain containing Terminator genes as seed.

Terminator would ensure a corporate stranglehold on seeds and result in higher seed prices at a time when farmers are experiencing the worst income crisis in the history of modern agriculture. If Canadian farmers were forced to buy Terminator seeds every year, the cost would be crippling. For example, an estimated 90% of Canadian wheat is planted with saved seed – in total, the annual cost to buy this seed would be $95 million dollars.

Who holds patents on Terminator? Monsanto has acquired Delta & Pine Land (DPL), the world’s largest cotton seed company, which jointly holds three US patents on Terminator technology with the US Department of Agriculture. In October 2005, DPL won new Terminator patents in both Europe and Canada. Also, the multinational seed and agrochemical company Syngenta is requesting a Canadian patent on its Terminator potatoes. But Indigenous potato farmers in the Andes of Peru have asked Syngenta destroy this patent.

Will Terminator stop genetic contamination? The multinational seed industry is waging a public relations campaign to promote Terminator technology as a means to stop unwanted genetic contamination from genetically engineered (GE) plants (particularly for potential use in GE trees and plants modified to produce drugs and industrial chemicals).

Escaped genes from GE plants are causing contamination and pose threats to agricultural biodiversity and the livelihoods of farmers. For example, Saskatchewan organic canola farmers are suing Monsanto and Bayer for GE contamination (www.saskorganic.com/oapf).

Industry argues that engineered sterility would offer a built-in safety feature for GE plants because if genes from a Terminator crop cross-pollinate with related plants nearby, the seed produced from unwanted pollination will be sterile – it will not germinate. But Terminator technology is a complex system involving multiple inserted genes that all work together in a sequence. Scientists warn that Terminator will not be 100% effective. The likelihood of system failure means it could never be a reliable tool for “biocontainment”. If Terminator is used for “biocontainment” and fails, it would introduce new, dangerous biosafety risks.

UPDATE January 2007:

Victory! Global Moratorium Upheld!: In 2000, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity recommended that governments not approve Terminator for field tests or commercial use. This created what is now recognized as an international moratorium. It was upheld and strengthened in March 2006 thanks to pressure from Canadians and people across the world.

Canada still promotes Terminator: In 2005, the Canadian government tried to overturn the UN moratorium. A leaked memo revealed that the government was preparing to push language to allow field-testing and commercialization. However, in March 2006, public pressure forced the government to agree to strengthen the moratorium. But our government has still not taken a stand against Terminator.

Monsanto Buys Terminator: On June 1, 2007 Monsanto concluded its deal to acquire Delta & Pine Land, the US seed company conducting greenhouse trials of Terminator. In 1999 Monsanto made a public commitment not to commercialize Terminator but “Monsanto does not rule out the potential development and use of one of these technologies in the future.”

Syngenta wants a Canadian patent on Terminator potatoes: Multinational corporation Syngenta has applied for a Canadian patent on its Terminator potatoes. But Indigenous farmers in the Andes of Peru are asking Syngenta to denounce this technology.