GUEST AUTHOR: Kevin Folta, professor and chairman of the horticultural sciences department at the University of Florida | Follow him on Twitter: @kevinfolta | He blogs at Illumination
“ The minute seeds stop being the seeds of renewal and starts being the seeds of death- like the terminator technology, creating sterile seeds, patented technology that makes it illegal for farmers to save and exchange seed, we get scarcity, that is why a quarter million Indian farmers have committed suicide. “
“ The gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants would result in a global catastrophe that would eventually wipe out higher life forms, including humans, from the planet”. “ – Vandana Shiva
The topic of “suicide seeds” or “terminator technology” is a deeply engrained in the fabric of the anti-GMO movement. Such ominous language is the litters many websites that conjuring fears from farmer manipulation to the death of every plant on the planet and maybe even humans! That would be one heck of a Frankenfood!
However, the reality is not nearly so scary. In 1998 Delta and Pine Land, one of America’s largest cotton seed company, received wide patent protection for a series of traits, one that was called “technology protection system”. Through a rather clever process, a self-fertilizing plant cannot produce germinating seeds. The molecular basis is a gene that encodes a protein called a Ribosome Interfering Protein. You might recall that ribosomes are the cellular sites for protein synthesis, so if this interfering protein is expressed, the plant can’t make other proteins (which comprise enzymes and structural feature) so the plant would die before germination.
The gene was placed next to a promoter from an LEA gene. Think of promoters as on-off switches. LEA stands for “Late Embryogenesis Abundant”. So this promoter switches on the protein that interrupts protein synthesis during late embroygenesis. An embryo that can’t synthesize protein is pretty much DOA.
All of this was regulated through a clever but complex process that activated this mechanism upon self-pollination.
Why do they call it “terminator technology”? This term actually was devised by a Canadian NGO called the Rural Advancement Foundation International. They were not so excited about the technology and came up with a suitably scary term for a trait that simply makes seeds infertile.
But to the point most people are wondering about, how does this technology help farmers?
The technology had one use in preventing farmers from saving seeds with licensed traits, but it also could have been used to deal with cross pollination issues. Whether it’s your neighbor growing blue cotton next to your white cotton or waxy corn next to your crop of corn meant to be used to make corn starch (a little cross pollination from the waxy corn can ruin the value of that harvest) or organic corn next to RoundUp Ready corn, there are lots of instances where preventing cross pollination would make farmer’s lives easier.
But the bottom line is that the technology hasn’t been of use to farmers. It hasn’t hurt them either. Why? Because it was never used in a crop beyond the greenhouse. The technology was never commercially deployed. Why not? Probably because it became a PR nightmare coupled to the fact that Delta Pine’s products had a long, expensive road to deregulation ahead.
This means that everyday there are anti-GMO internet comments being written fear mongering and complaining about a technology that has never been deployed. In practical terms, TERMINATOR SEEDS are an urban myth that never seems to go away.
Terminator? Do you mean, “hybrid”?
Is this technology really unfair to farmers? Many biotech critics feel that this technology would be unacceptable because it prohibits a farmer from saving seeds for the next year’s planting, and that’s true.
However, seed companies have relied on their own genetic means to stop propagation of their elite genetics for many years. They’re called hybrids.
Seed companies develop genetically pure lines called “inbreds”. Inbreds themselves typically aren’t too exciting. In the case of corn one hybrid might have tiny ears but good disease resistance. Another might have a better quality ear but poor yield. However, when the two are crossed the next generation has half the genes from each parent, and in some cases the “combining ability” results in an exceptional plant– a hybrid. These perform great and seed companies and farmers make a few bucks.
However, if a farmer were to save seeds from the hybrid the genetics would scramble again. The next generation would produce plants where there was no genetic uniformity. Most plants would have deleterious traits, maybe poor resistance to disease, bad yield or unmarketable corn quality. So in all fairness, hybrids are also functionally “terminators” in that they require the farmer to repurchase seeds every year.
Is that a bad thing? Not really. Hybrid breeding began in the 1930s and in crops like corn really caught on. Farmers have historically been glad to buy seeds from seed companies. Seed companies specialize in making seeds, not making food. Farmers specialize in growing food, not seeds. Seed companies can grow plants/seeds to maturity, harvest at the right time, process and store the seed, then perform quality control to guarantee the best product for the farmer.
In conclusion, the scary thought of terminator technology is based on a grain of truth, but is wildly overblown. The technology exists but never was deployed. Moreover, farmers have been buying “dead end” hybrid seed for decades. While they can’t propagate it, they are guaranteed high-quality seed that maintained superior traits to maximize their profits.
The next time someone tries to convince you that ag companies use terminator technology to harm farmers in a quest for world domination, remind them that the technology never was used. It’s just another popular anti-biotech myth. Your knowledge of the real story is its terminator.
[ A version of this essay previously appeared on Illumination. ]