GM seeds may have built-in obsolescence

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The Independent Online

Giant biotech companies are pressing for the revival of a GM technology so damaging to the world's poor that it has been suspended by worldwide agreement.

Giant biotech companies are pressing for the revival of a GM technology so damaging to the world's poor that it has been suspended by worldwide agreement.

The drive to rehabilitate the so-called "terminator technology" - designed to deny hundreds of millions of poor farmers the ability to replant seeds from their own crops - is expected to reach a peak at an international conference in Malaysia this week.

Senior managers have been trying to rebrand it as a green technology that will solve the spread of genes from GM plants to other crops and weeds. Delegates to the Malaysia conference say that they are expecting a big push next week by biotech firms and the Bush administration.

This comes at an embarrassing time for the Government, which is drawing up plans to persuade the public that GM crops would particularly benefit developing countries.

Terminator technology - officially classified as a Genetic Use Restriction Technology (Gurt) - would make the seeds produced by the GM plants sterile.

This means that many of the 1.4 billion poor Third World farmers who save seed from their crop each year and resow it to produce the next harvest would no longer be able to do so. They would have to buy new seeds from the biotech companies. Many would not be able to afford them, and would go out of business.

Such was the public and scientific outcry when it was first developed that Monsanto was forced to make "a public commitment not to commercialise sterile seed technology". The following year the world's governments agreed to place it under an international moratorium.

However, the International Seed Federation, which represents the world seed industry, insists that it presents "a possible technical solution" to the increasing problem of contamination of conventional and organic crops by genes from GM plants.

A paper written for the ISF by Roger Krueger of Monsanto and Harry Collins of Delta & Pine Land, the company that holds the most patents in the technology, dismisses concerns about its ill-effects as "conjecture", and says "Gurts have the potential to benefit farmers in all size, economic and geographical areas".

However, Monsanto stresses it stands by its commitment not to develop the technology.

Many developing countries made a determined attempt last week at a conference of the parties to the international Convention on Biological Diversity in Kuala Lumpur to have the technology banned outright. But the attempt was successfully resisted by Canada, Australia and Brazil, acting as surrogates for the United States, which has refused to join the convention.

Hope Shand of the ETC pressure group said yesterday: "We believe that if terminator technology is accepted ... it will be used everywhere to enforce industry monopoly by preventing farmers from saving and reusing their seeds."

Meanwhile, Downing Street officials have told Tony Blair that a decision to give the green light to GM maize will further damage his credibility, with dangerous consequences for the next general election.

They have warned him that it has become a crucial issue of trust, at a time when public faith in him has almost disappeared.

The alarm at the centre of the Government has deepened with the outcry after last week's leak of Cabinet subcommittee meetings. These revealed a discussion of how to spin the announcement of a decision to approve GM maize with "careful presentation" so that public opposition can be "worn down".

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