The technique would protect agribusiness's profits but would harm farmers who would be forced to buy seed every year.
Associated Press Farm Writer
Washington -- A new technique that makes seeds sterile is sowing controversy among critics who say it will protect big-business profits while unfairly ending the age-old farm practice of saving a crop's seeds for next year.
``We call it terminator technology,'' said Hope Shand, research director for the Rural Advancement Foundation International in Pittsboro, N.C. ``It will force farmers to return to the same company year after year for their seeds.''
Agriculture Department researchers and the Delta and Pine Land Co. of Scott, Miss., patented the new procedure this year for cotton seed. Companies like Delta and Pine -- now being acquired by biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. -- want in effect to copyright their plants developed through costly genetic engineering.
``The concern was a company might spend a whole lot of time and a whole lot of money in developing new varieties,'' said Sandy Miller Hays, information director for USDA's Agricultural Research Service. ``Everybody runs out and buys the seeds, collects them at the end of the year and says thank you very much.''
One of the hottest trends in agriculture is use of genetics to develop plant varieties that resist disease or pests or include traits sought after by consumers such as low-fat oils. Big companies like Monsanto, DuPont and Pioneer Hi-Bred International are investing heavily in biotechnology.
Harry Collins, who directed the research for Delta and Pine, said the new technique involves inserting an array of new genes in a cotton plant that -- when sprayed with a chemical compound -- turns off a ``blocker'' switch that normally allows the plant's seeds to be fertile.
These seeds produce cotton normally, generally with money-making benefits from genetic engineering. But when the plant produces seeds, they don't germinate because the ``blocker'' gene doesn't work, sending the farmer back to the dealer for next year's supply.
So far, the technique is proven to work on cotton and tobacco seeds, but Collins said it should be effective in wheat, soybeans and numerous other crops. It will probably be 2004 before the cotton seed is ready for commercial use, but the breakthrough already is stirring heavy criticism.
Jane Rissler, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said preventing farmers in poor countries from saving seeds could trigger more hunger because they cannot afford to buy the expensive genetically modified seeds.
``The companies want to control all the seeds,'' Rissler said. ``It gives the lie to the notion that the biotechnology industry wants to feed the world. It's the wrong way to go if you think biodiversity is important.''
Seed companies already control the world's supply of hybrid corn seeds. In previous decades, hybrids developed in ways that prevent them from producing seeds after harvest that would grow into a viable plant the next year.
Millions of farmers worldwide depend on saving wheat, soybean, rice and many other seeds to produce food, Shand said.
``It is outrageous that the Agriculture Department used taxpayer money to pay for this research,'' she said. ``It is dangerous and immoral.''
But USDA's Hays said without some protection, seed companies won't continue development of the new plant varieties that could actually improve yields in the Third World and move some farmers out of subsistence and into profits.
``We think in the long run this will benefit farmers, and they will have access to many more varieties,'' she said.
In addition, Delta and Pine's Collins said sterile seeds would prevent a genetic trait such as resistance to certain insects from escaping into a wild relative plant, causing a dangerous mutation that could rapidly make weeds immune from natural enemies.
Hays said it would be years before the process is transferred to other crops for commercial use. Delta and Pine has until Oct. 31, 1999, to negotiate a deal with USDA on how the new technique might be marketed to seed companies.
The company and USDA have applied for patents in 78 countries, a process that Shand and other sustainable agriculture groups are hoping to stop.