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WND Exclusive
Hidden dangers
in 'Terminator' seeds?

Expert warns of unintended
biological ramifications

By Jon E. Dougherty
© 1999

A biology expert in Indiana says neither the companies nor the U.S. Agriculture Department which patented "Terminator" seed technology have adequately considered all the possible ramifications which could result in unintended crop damage if the seeds are widely used.

Martha L. Crouch, associate professor of biology at the University of Indiana, voiced her concerns recently in an exhaustive policy paper entitled, "How the Terminator Terminates: An Explanation for the Non-Scientist of a Remarkable Patent for Killing Second Generation Seeds of Crop Plants."

"Clearly, one cannot determine ahead of time all possible biological ramifications of implementing the (Terminator) patent," but "potential problems have already been noted," she said.

The paper seeks to explain the process by which Terminator seeds work, how they may be applied to modern farming, and what is known so far about the process. But, she warns, more study is needed before full implementation of the patent takes place.

For example, Crouch is concerned that the Terminator may inadvertently be spread to other neighboring plants, either by cross-pollination from insects or by wind currents. If that were to happen, she said, "It is likely that Terminator will kill the seeds of neighboring plants of the same species, under certain conditions."

"In most cases," she writes, "the toxin gene will not be passed on any further" than the first generation of neighboring crops and plants, "because dead plants don't reproduce. However ... it is possible for the toxin gene to be inherited."

She said that dead seeds, where they do occur, "would be a serious problem for the farmer whose fields are close to the Terminator crop" because of a number of varying factors for which there is no conclusive data. "How many seeds die will depend on the degree of cross-pollination, and that is influenced by the species of plant, the variety of crop, weather conditions, how close the fields are to each other, and so on," she wrote.

Furthermore, Crouch wrote, if too many seeds die, it would make the practice of saving seed impractical for the adjacent farmer. Though she admitted she is not certain of the intentions of the USDA and the seed companies, she concedes that it's possible one goal of the Terminator technology is to prevent farmers from being able to reuse seed year after year.

Crouch explained that companies like Monsanto, who invest heavily in biotechnology and are finally beginning to show a profit for their efforts, are aggressively protecting their patented seeds. Right now companies are asking farmers to voluntarily comply with pleas not to reuse seed, but with the Terminator technology, "In the future, companies and government breeders...may not have to ask for such compliance. If the procedure outlined in (the) recent (Terminator seed) patent comes to fruition and is widely used, plant variety protection will be biologically built into the plants themselves."

Crouch also questions the effects the toxins used in Terminator seeds might have on humans, animals, and ecosystems. The authors of the patent itself said, "In cotton that would be grown commercially only selected lethal genes could be used, since these proteins could impact the final quality of seeds...If the seed is not a factor in the commercial value of a crop (e.g., in forage crops, ornamentals, or plants grown for the floral industry) any lethal gene should be acceptable."

She called that "dangerously reductionist thinking," and explained that "people are not the only organisms that interact with seeds." The Indiana University biologist pointed out that treated forage crops -- left behind after harvest -- may affect birds, insects, fungi, and bacteria "that eat or infect the seeds." Treated forage crops that are left in a field will obviously come in contact with the soil, thereby potentially damaging the ecology of soil organisms which are so essential for the growth of plants and crops.

"Further, a floral or ornamental crop with Terminator may happen to grow near a related crop where the seeds are used, and if pollination occurs, the seeds will contain toxin without the farmer knowing," she said. "The toxin could end up in products without anyone's knowledge," and if the effects of such toxins are not fully realized, that could have dramatic effects throughout the food chain.

Crouch is also skeptical of the portion of the patented process that calls for treating all Terminator seeds with the antibiotic tetracycline. She said that Terminator seed companies would have to use an inordinate amount of the antibiotic -- which is used to help cause the Terminator reaction -- to soak every seed.

Besides questioning where farmers would dispose of so much of the antibiotic, Crouch said, "I am having trouble visualizing exactly how this will work, because the seeds must be treated with tetracycline after they have matured completely (so that the toxin won't be made in the first generation [of seed])." She said that despite the attempt in some official circles to downplay the harmful effects from so much contact with tetracycline, "large scale agricultural uses of antibiotics are already seen as a threat to their medical uses."

She also mentioned the unlikelihood "that any tetracycline treatment (would) be 100 percent effective." For a variety of reasons, some seeds may not respond, or take up enough tetracycline to activate themselves before they are supposed to in the germination/growth cycle. "In such cases, plants growing from the unaffected seeds would look just like all the others, but would grow up to make pollen carrying a non-functional toxin gene."

Crouch said she believes the seed industry will address some of the problems discussed in her paper, but she also believes "there will be other problems no one yet foresees or imagines. There will be surprises." She also said that she views any potential biological problems as small in comparison to "Terminator's economic, social, and political ramifications."

See Jon E. Dougherty's daily column. He may be reached through E-mail.


© 1999 Western Journalism Center
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