Work is under way to target Third World farmers with a new form of genetically modified seed, nicknamed the Verminator because it contains a fat gene from a rat.
Agro-chemical giants have been patenting dozens of genetically engineered "terminator" seeds which are programmed to kill their own embryos so they cannot produce next year's crop. But the Verminator is the most dramatic example of the new science of genetic modification.
The patents have been condemned by scientists and Third World charities who say the technology will "enslave" the world's poorest farmers to businesses such as Monsanto.
Over 1.4 billion subsistence farmers and their families in the Third World rely on keeping back seeds from each crop to grow next year's harvest, ensuring that they can breed their own plants. Charities, which have been working to make poor communities self-sufficient, say that the new GM seeds could herald the demise of sustainable development.
"The whole concept of this invention is based around making the poor pay for seeds instead of saving their own. It risks damaging the seed base poor people depend on," said Isabel McCrea, of Action Aid.
Zeneca, a leading biotechnology spin-off of ICI, is working on the Verminator, a killer gene which can be switched on or off by a chemical trigger. Its patent describes the gene as coming from "mammalian uncoupling protein isolated from the brown adipose tissue of ratus ratus". Once inserted into the plant it acts as a killer of pollen cells by making them starve themselves to death. The energy function of pollen-producing cells is blocked.
"Terminator technology is dangerous because it puts an end to life," said Michael Antoniou, a molecular geneticist. "If you stop the energy factories in the cell from working it does not have any energy to keep it alive."
The controversial new terminator technology will be debated this week by politicians, ecologists and scientists at the 1999 convention on biological diversity in Colombia, a conference on protecting the world's plant life. There are likely to be calls for tight controls on introducing GM crops - including suicide seeds - into the developing world.
"By peddling suicide seeds the biotechnology multinationals will lock the world's poorest farmers into a new form of genetic serfdom," said Emma Must, campaigns officer of the World Development Movement. "Currently 80 per cent of crops grown in developing countries are grown using farm- saved seeds. Being unable to save seeds from sterile crops could mean the difference between surviving or going under."
It may be years before the terminator seeds are being planted commercially, but already Indian farmers are up in arms about the threat to their livelihoods. They have launched "Operation Cremate Monsanto" with the intention of "burning" the company out of their country. Fields of GM cotton have been set alight in Karnataka, and a government minister has expressed concern.
Professor N Najundaswamy, president of the 10 million-strong Karnataka farmers' association, says: "This is a terminator of food security. It is a damaging technology because pollination pollution can render indigenous varieties sterile. This gene will remove all characteristics of germination from our seeds."
At the end of last year Professor Najundaswamy and 200 of his farmers descended on two experimental fields of cotton which had been genetically engineered to resist pests but did not carry the terminator gene. They uprooted the cotton, piled it up and set it alight. "We are making a call for direct action against Monsanto and the rest of the biotech gang," he said.
Meanwhile, Babagouda Patil, India's minister for rural development, has warned that "the terminator gene will pose a serious threat to Indian agriculture". And the world's largest agricultural research institution has banned terminator technology. The Consultative Group on Inter- national Agricultural Research, which co-ordinates the research centres that spawned the Green Revolution, has announced it "will not incorporate into its breeding materials any genetic systems designed to prevent seed germination".
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