`Terminator' seeds threaten a barren future for farmers

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The Independent Online
THE ancient right of farmers to save their seed and breed their plants may soon become a thing of the past. "Terminator" seeds, deliberately disabled from germinating when replanted, are threatening a farming practice as old as agriculture itself.

Three weeks ago one of the most far-reaching patents ever granted went to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Delta and Pine, an American seed company. They have developed a genetic technique that can prevent the seed from germinating when replanted. The new development could force farmers back into the seed shop for a fresh supply every year, and the company has the exclusive right to issue or deny licences.

So far the technique has only worked on cotton and tobacco seeds, but scientists believe that within a few years crucial crops like wheat, rice and soya beans - staples for three-quarters of the world's poor - may also be under the control of international agribusiness. Second and Third World countries are those most likely to be targeted and it is estimated that up to 1.4 billion farming families worldwide will be at risk.

At the same time governments are expected to come under intense pressure to adopt the new technique and perhaps even outlaw farmer-to-farmer exchange. University research departments short of money will be among the beneficiaries of the ensuing corporate dollars.

Existing seed banks carefully developed by farmers may also become vulnerable. Some scientists predict the development of a virus that could disable all non-terminator seeds.

"This is perfectly possible," said Dr Owain Williams, of the Gaia Foundation, which works with indigenous peoples around the world. "Already bacteria have been developed for fixing nitrogen into corn roots, so why not a killer bacteria?"

Agribusiness companies insist that the new technique means an incentive to invest in the world's most important food crops, and will benefit poor populations with desperately needed research. While admitting that seed prices will rise, the corporations argue that farmers will be free to choose the terminator seeds or publicly bred varieties.