Monday, March 20, 2006

Seeds of their own destruction

Seeds of our own destruction?

By Wendy Frew, Environment Reporter, Sydney Morning Herald, March 18, 2006

THE Federal Government is pushing to weaken an international moratorium on so-called "terminator technology", a form of genetic engineering that makes harvested seeds sterile.

The technology - which prevents farmers from saving and reusing harvested seed, forcing them to buy new seeds every year - should be assessed case by case, Australian government officials told a United Nations meeting in Spain in January.

Such a move would open the door to commercial use of the so-called "suicide seeds", according to environmentalists who are especially concerned about the ramifications for farmers in poorer countries who traditionally harvest seed from their crops.

At a time when the world's $28 billion seed market is consolidating into fewer corporate hands, it could also become increasingly difficult for farmers in countries such as Australia to buy seeds that aren't produced with terminator technology.

"Australia's brazen move confirms that an alarming government-industry strategy is in play to overturn the UN moratorium on Terminator," said Lucy Sharratt, of the Canadian-based Ban Terminator Campaign.

Ms Sharratt, who attended the meeting in Spain, said Australia's position dismissed the ramifications the technology could have for indigenous farmers in developing nations who could not afford to buy new seeds every season. But the Federal Government told the Herald allegations it was seeking to overturn decisions taken under the convention were false. A de facto terminator moratorium has been in place since 2000.

It said a blanket ban on terminator technology was not a good approach because it would block research. However, it said genetically modified organisms produced using terminator technology "would be subjected to a rigorous, scientific assessment by the Gene Technology Regulator under the Gene Technology Act 2000".

However, like many OECD nations, Australian regulations consider only the health and environment risks associated with GM. They do not assess the effect GM technology, such as suicide seeds, would have on agricultural and food markets, or address any broader economic or socio-economic issues.

Australian farmers have not been lobbying for the introduction of terminator technology, according to the chairman of the NSW Farmers Association's Bio-Technology Taskforce, Hugh Roberts. "I cannot see, as of 2006, there is any advantage of having [terminator technology] in the Australian market," he said.

Some proponents of terminator technology have argued that its introduction could prevent the contamination of fields free of GM crops. However, Mr Hughes, who is in favour of the commercialisation of GM crops, believes concerns about the risk of contamination were unfounded, and therefore terminator technology would have no role to play there either.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, there is a sense in which Terminator Technology (TT) could be valuable, in that it addresses concerns about "contamination" chanted endlessly by environmentalists. At the same time, it's pointless technology because in the current state of the art, "contamination" would involve only crops which have been found by regulators to be "substantially equivalent" to products of conventional breeding. There's hardly a need for developing novel technology with the sole purpose of capitulating to activists.

On the other hand, TT would have value for producers of engineered crops, in that it would protect their inventions in a way that would make trips to the courthouse largely unnecessary. Brown-baggers and seed-smugglers would be put out of business and Percy Schmeiser types would have to content themselves with old-fashioned seed.

This will change with future developments in engineered crops, such as those with enhanced nutrional content that reduces reliance on animal feed additives. Seed for these value-added crops will be even more valuable than those with simple agronomic traits, and provide a much greater incentive for brown-bagging and seed-smuggling.

Pharma-crops have other implications. While vastly more valuable than those with enhanced nutritional content, they won't be attractive to the black market because in many cases, extraction of active ingredients in the crops requires sophisticated processing and refinement capabilities. "Contamination" by pharma-crops will have to be addressed on the basis of the modification involved and it's a bit hard to see how the chips will fall on that issue.

TT is actually quite difficult to work with in R&D; seeds engineered to be sterile are, as one might imagine, are *very* difficult to breed reliably. I don't foresee the fundamentals of the technology ironed out soon. But such technology would be useful, and therefore it it is inevitable.


20 March 2006 at 11:22:00 pm GMT+10  

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