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Grim Sower: Renewed Calls for Ban on Terminator Technology

Sunday, January 1, 2006

Terminator technology refers to plants that have been genetically modified to render sterile seeds at harvest (also called Genetic Use Restriction Technology or GURTs). Terminator was developed by the multinational seed/agrochemical industry and the United States government to prevent farmers from saving and re-planting harvested seed.

Currently there is an international de facto moratorium on Terminator at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. But the moratorium is in jeopardy as governments and corporations push hard to commercialize this technology. (

As governments gather for the fourth meeting of the Ad Hoc Open-ended Intersessional Working Group on Article 8(j) and related provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity from January 23-27, 2006 in Granada, Spain, indigenous peoples, farmers’ groups and NGOs are renewing their calls for an international ban on Terminator Technology, because of its serious threat to livelihoods, food security and agricultural biodiversity.

The Oakland Institute's Senior Fellow Lim Li Ching reports...

Grim Sower: Renewed Calls for Ban on Terminator Technology

As governments gather for the fourth meeting of the Ad Hoc Open-ended Intersessional Working Group on Article 8(j) and related provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity, indigenous peoples, farmers’ groups and NGOs are renewing their calls for an international ban on Terminator Technology, because of its serious threat to livelihoods, food security and agricultural biodiversity. The 8(j) Working Group will meet from January 23-27, 2006 in Granada, Spain.

The Grim Sower            source:  

Terminator Technology, which is one of the Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs) under development, is an extremely controversial application of genetic engineering. Terminator was designed by the multinational seed industry and the United States Department of Agriculture to render seeds sterile at harvest, thus preventing farmers from saving and re-using seed, and forcing them to return to corporations to buy seed every season.

This poses an unacceptable threat to the millions of farmers, particularly in developing countries, who depend on farm saved seed for their survival. Furthermore, there would be adverse impacts on the practice and retention of the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and farmers that, in turn, supports food security, self-determination, cultural and spiritual practices, and the protection of biodiversity around the world. In addition, ten multinational corporations are now estimated to control around half of all the world’s seed supply. This consolidation has been facilitated by biotechnology and the advent of patents on genes and seeds and Terminator would further add to this corporate control.

In 1999, in response to an avalanche of public opposition, two of the world’s largest seed and agrochemical corporations, Monsanto and AstraZeneca (now Syngenta), publicly vowed not to commercialize Terminator seeds.

In 2000, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopted Decision V/5 (Agricultural biological diversity) section III, paragraph 23, which recommends that Parties not approve GURTs for field testing or commercial use, thereby establishing a “de facto” moratorium on GURTs.

The relevant part of the decision reads: “Recommends that, in the current absence of reliable data on genetic use restriction technologies, without which there is an inadequate basis on which to assess their potential risks, and in accordance with the precautionary approach, products incorporating such technologies should not be approved by Parties for field testing until appropriate scientific data can justify such testing, and for commercial use until appropriate, authorized and strictly controlled scientific assessments with regard to, inter alia, their ecological and socio-economic impacts and any adverse effects for biological diversity, food security and human health have been carried out in a transparent manner and the conditions for their safe and beneficial use validated. In order to enhance the capacity of all countries to address these issues, Parties should widely disseminate information on scientific assessments, including through the clearing-house mechanism, and share their expertise in this regard.”

Unfortunately, the CBD’s “de facto” moratorium on Terminator is now seriously threatened, as there have been increased efforts made by industry and some governments to overturn the previous decision on GURTs.

At the tenth meeting of the CBD’s intergovernmental scientific advisory body - the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) - in February 2005, the Canadian government led efforts by some Parties to overturn the CBD’s existing “de facto” moratorium in favor of national approval for the field testing and commercial use of GURTs. Fortunately, they were unsuccessful in this respect, and Decision V/5 was reaffirmed due to the interventions of other Parties, but the threat of Terminator looming its ugly head remains.

Simultaneously, multinational seed corporations are increasing pressure to win acceptance for Terminator:

• In 2003, Monsanto and Delta and Pine Land seed company representatives co-authored the International Seed Federation position paper promoting Terminator.

• In March 2004, Syngenta (the world’s largest agrochemical company and holder of the most Terminator patents) won another Terminator patent (US 6,700,039). This, despite Syngenta stating that it will not commercialize the technology.

• In February 2005, Delta & Pine Land (DPL) actively promoted Terminator (the company calls it a “Technology Protection System”) at SBSTTA-10.

• On 5 October 2005, DPL and the US Department of Agriculture won a new patent on Terminator from the European Patent Office (EP 775212B).

• On 11 October 2005, DPL and the US Department of Agriculture were awarded a Canadian patent on Terminator (CA 2196410).

Worryingly, corporations like Delta and Pine Land, the company behind Terminator, are now presenting Terminator as “enhancing biosafety and biodiversity”. This company and many others, including Monsanto and Syngenta, were damaged by the initial international protest against their plans in the late 1990s. Forced to make statements that they would not develop Terminator crops, they now seem to be seeking a more acceptable image for their intentions. To allay fears about contamination from genetically engineered crops, they are now presenting the technology as suitable for “biological containment”, to prevent gene flow, which is one of the recognized threats of genetically engineered crops.

Workshop Against Terminator Technology Participants, Peru, Sept. 2005

However, Terminator is not a reliable gene containment system for both technical and practical reasons. It is not a biosafety tool and cannot be 100% effective. Conversely, Terminator crops, like other genetically engineered crops, may pose threats to the environment and human health.

In the first place, biological containment systems cannot help reduce or eliminate contamination of food, feed or seed with genetically engineered genes, that is a result of accidental mixing after harvest or during transport and processing.

Terminator is also a complex and largely experimental system that has several shortcomings in terms of gene containment. Terminator crops will still produce pollen and could cross with neighboring non-genetically engineered or organic crops. So gene flow could still occur, with potentially catastrophic impacts on agrobiodiversity and biodiversity, and on seed saving.

Furthermore, because the system relies on a chemical sensitive genetic switch to ultimately activate a toxin gene that prevents seed germination, the chemical would need to be applied to the seed before it is sold. However, the treatment of seeds may not be completely effective. The effect may be sufficient to make saving seed an unreliable exercise for farmers, but not enough for complete gene containment. The chemical sensitive genetic switch may also be activated by some of the plant’s own chemicals or may not be completely switched off all the time. This ‘leakage’ could lead to fertile seeds being produced, and thus the failure of Terminator to prevent gene flow.

Other problems, such as gene silencing or instability of one component, could lead to failure of the whole system. Gene silencing is one phenomenon seen in genetically engineered crops that arises from the introduction of foreign genes. Furthermore, the genes forming the Terminator system have to be linked together to work properly, so if they split during reproduction, the system would fail.

It is clear that the industry’s spin recasting Terminator as effective in preventing genetic contamination and gene flow from genetically engineered crops is fatally flawed. In fact, Terminator’s only real value is to benefit corporations economically, by forcing farmers to buy seed every season.

The efforts to overturn the CBD’s “de facto” moratorium on Terminator are expected to continue at next week’s 8(j) Working Group meeting, which has been asked “to consider the potential socio-economic impacts of genetic use restriction technologies (GURTs) on indigenous and local communities”. The 8(j) Working Group was established by the CBD to specifically address the implementation of Article 8(j) and related provisions of the Convention. Article 8(j) deals with issues related to the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.

The Working Group is likely to make recommendations on the potential socio-economic impacts of GURTs to the eighth meeting of the CBD’s Conference of the Parties (COP 8), to be held in Curitiba, Brazil from 20-31 March 2006.

Terminator had already proven to be a hot potato, passing among various CBD bodies, starting from when the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (AHTEG) on Genetic Use Restriction Technologies met in February 2003 to consider the potential impacts of GURTs on smallholder farmers, indigenous and local communities. Its report was critical of Terminator and noted the potential negative socio-economic and cultural impacts. In fact, in addition to reaffirming Decision V/5 III, the AHTEG report recommended that Parties and other Governments “consider the development of regulatory frameworks not to approve GURTs for field-testing and commercial use.”

However, the AHTEG report has been criticized by some Parties (who are unhappy with the overall tone of the report which is critical of Terminator) for not representing a consensus viewpoint and for not being “scientific”. The AHTEG report was sent to SBSTTA-9, as well as the third meeting of the 8(j) Working Group for consideration and advice in 2003.

At the third meeting of the 8(j) Working Group, held in December 2003, a draft recommendation was drafted on GURTs. However, some representatives considered that there had been insufficient time to adequately address the issue, which they argued required further in-depth assessment and discussion. The Working Group thus recommended that its next meeting (i.e. the meeting in Granada next week) be the forum to consider the potential socio-economic impacts of GURTs on indigenous and local communities.

Meanwhile, SBSTTA-9 avoided the controversial issue by claiming it was unable to provide advice because of the broad agenda before it and proceeded to transmit the AHTEG report to the Conference of the Parties (COP 7) while recommending that COP 7 requests SBSTTA-10 to provide advice on GURTs to COP 8.

In February 2004, COP 7 in turn, urged the 8(j) Working Group to consider the potential socio-economic impacts of GURTs on indigenous and local communities, on the basis of the report of the AHTEG on GURTs, the outcome of deliberations of SBSTTA-10, and a study undertaken by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), on potential impacts of GURTs on agricultural biodiversity and agricultural production systems. When SBSTTA-10 met in February 2005, it could not reach consensus on the AHTEG report.

This is the threshold at which the world stands now on Terminator, following a long, tortuous route and repeated delays in seriously addressing the issue. It thus seems that the 8(j) Working Group meeting in Granada will be in a unique position to make strong and conclusive recommendations to COP 8.

Civil society groups have thus stepped up their efforts to ensure that Terminator is banned once and for all, and formed the Ban Terminator Campaign ( in 2005. The Campaign is supported by groups and movements across the world including AS-PTA (Assessoria e Serviços a Projectos em Agricultura Alternativa), ETC Group (Action group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration), GRAIN, Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism, ITDG (Intermediate Technology Development Group), Pesticide Action Network – Asia and the Pacific, Third World Network and Via Campesina. +

Update on the Granada Meeting: Moratorium on Terminator Technology Reaffirmed, But Weakened

* Lim Li Ching, Senior Fellow at The Oakland Institute, works with the biosafety programme at Third World Network (TWN), an international NGO based in Malaysia. TWN is involved in efforts to bring about a greater articulation of the needs and rights of peoples in developing countries; a fair distribution of world resources; and forms of development which are ecologically sustainable and fulfill human needs.

This article was first published in the Third World Network's South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).

Read Other Articles by Lim Li Ching

People's Health Assembly Demands Right to Health For All

Contamination by Experimental Genetically Engineered Crops Should Not be “Found Acceptable”

Europe Still Resisting GMOS

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