Despite their ability to manipulate plants on a microscopic level, biotechnology companies rely on a far more blunt mechanism to make money: patent law.
Companies like Dow and Monsanto use contracts with farmers to lock them into annual use of the patented technology each kernel of corn or soybean contains. When growers go astray, saving harvested seed to plant, sans license, the next spring, the biotech industry has repeatedly shown that it'll prosecute such patent renegades to the fullest extent of the law; just this year a GMO seed patent case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The legal paperwork that upholds the biotech industry may be well established, but a more effective means of limiting patent abuses has existed since before GMO crops were first commercially released in the early 1990s. Genetic Use Restriction Technologies employ gene tweaks to produce sterile crops—corn, for example, that can be sold and processed and eaten but, if planted, won’t produce another generation of the crop. While glyphosate-resistant corn and soybeans cruised through regulatory hurdles in the ’90s, these so-called terminator seeds were stonewalled. In 2000, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity recommended a de facto moratorium on GURT—an effective ban supported by 193 countries that was upheld in 2006—and terminator seeds were outlawed in Brazil, India, and other developing nations.
Now, Brazil, the world’s third-largest agriculture exporter, is on the verge of overturning its law—and potentially providing an opening for biotech companies to enslave farmers with a new class of highly lucrative and potentially more socially and environmentally damaging products.
The Guardian reports that “powerful landowning groups have been pushing Congress to allow the technology to be used for the controlled propagation of certain plants used for medicines and eucalyptus trees, which provide pulp for paper mills.”
So rather than using terminator technology to keep food-crop farmers from saving seeds, the exception to the moratorium would limit the natural reproduction of transgene plants. In other words, a plantation of terminator eucalyptus trees, genetically engineered to withstand colder temperatures, wouldn’t result in patent-protected saplings cropping up downwind, unbeknownst to anyone.
The landowners say they only want to use the technology for non-food crops, according to The Guardian.
Regardless, opponents see the fight over terminator seeds in the same light they did in the 1990s, when small farmers around the world led the protest movement against GURT: Easing restrictions on terminator technology would threaten smallholder farmers in Brazil and throughout the world. Despite the massive scale of Brazil's export-based agriculture industry, 70 percent of the country’s internal food supply comes from smallholder farms. The majority of such farms plant their crops with saved seeds instead of purchasing them from a corporation.
This week a letter signed by 34,000 people protesting the proposed easing of terminator seed restriction was delivered to Brazilian politicians.
In a statement posted on its website, the technology watchdog group ETC warned that even limited use of GURT would pose a threat.
“Terminator technologies are highly imperfect and the sterility trait will inevitably bleed into neighboring fields and crops, meaning that farmers will unwittingly plant seeds that they will never be able to harvest,” the statement reads.
A Convention on Biological Diversity document addressed, rather formally, to “the Conference of the Parties,” recommends that GURT not be approved for testing or commercial use until scientific studies of “their ecological and socio-economic impacts and any adverse effects for biological diversity, food security and human health have been carried out in a transparent manner and the conditions for their safe and beneficial use validated.”
While the impacts of GURT are conjecture at this point, if Brazil moves to break the moratorium on terminator seeds now, biotech will be free to move ahead with development before important research like this can be conducted.