A Seedy Business

A new "terminator" technology will make crops sterile and force farmers to buy seeds more often—so why did the USDA invent it?
Plus: USDA Inc.: When public research goes corporate

| Tue Apr. 7, 1998 3:00 AM EDT

It's a practice as old as farming itself: As sure as the rooster crows at dawn, farmers save seeds from one growing season and plant them in the next. In South America, poor farmers use knowledge passed down over centuries to select seeds best suited to the local climate and soil. Across the equator their counterparts in South Dakota do it too; 80 to 90 percent of wheat farmers there save seeds from harvests. Those seeds are carefully cleaned and conditioned and then planted. They've been doing it for generations, year after year.

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But the practice of seed saving may soon go the way of the steam tractor, and farmers have little say in the matter. A new genetic technology, patented in March, will make it possible for companies to sell seeds that will only work for one growing season, so farmers have to buy each time they plant. Crops will grow as usual, but their seeds in turn will be duds, unable to germinate. Seeds of this kind are expected to come to market by 2004.

Who will challenge this affront to the age-old practice of seed saving? Surely the U.S. Department of Agriculture, long the champion of the American farmer, will stand up to this plot to pad corporate profits and proclaim, "Not on American soil, bucko!" Unlikely. USDA is the inventor.

Using taxpayer money, about $229,000, USDA created the new "technology protection system" with Delta and Pine Land Company, the nation's largest producer of cotton seeds with a 73 percent market share. Together they hold the patent. Public-private partnerships are not at all unusual at USDA—two recent USDA inventions, a spray to prevent salmonella in chickens and a feed that will reduce water-polluting phosphorous content in animal waste, were both developed using private funds—but this one stands out because it was not done to improve food safety, the environment, crop viability, or consumer choice. The research was done, according to the USDA inventor himself, to improve the bottom lines of American corporations.

Why Terminate Seeds?
How does USDA, a public agency which says its scientific mission is to do research that is "good for the public," justify developing this new biotechnology?

Seed saving may be good for farmers, but it's not good for the chemical and seed companies who are spending billions to develop genetically engineered seed varieties. Although a 1970 law permits U.S. farmers to save proprietary seeds for use on their own farms, companies selling genetically engineered varieties now say that farmers must not reuse their patented varieties at all. They say they can't make ends meet unless farmers pay each and every season.

Biotech seed companies have managed to control the "problem" of seed saving in this country by policing farmers. Monsanto requires that buyers of its Roundup Ready seeds agree to use them only once, and hires Pinkerton investigators to root out violators. However, companies have been unable to do the same in developing countries, where they have little or no patent protection and enforcement is a real headache. How can these companies continue spending millions to develop new high-tech seeds if they can't reach the millions of farmers in the untapped markets of China, India, Pakistan, South America?

USDA to the rescue. "The need was there to come up with a system that allowed you to self-police your technology, other than trying to put on laws and legal barriers to farmers saving seed, and to try and stop foreign interests from stealing the technology," says USDA scientist Melvin Oliver, the primary inventor of the new patent-protecting technique. Oliver says the invention is a way to put "billions of dollars spent on research back into the system."

When the MoJo Wire called back to ask exactly whose billions will be recouped by USDA's invention, Oliver said he had been instructed not to speak to the press any further. USDA refused to say whose idea the new technology was, but Delta and Pine president Murray Robinson was more forthcoming: He told us it was the company's idea.

USDA would not provide a copy of its contract with Delta and Pine, but under the public-private research program, USDA receives licensing fees and royalty payments when its inventions come to market—and USDA scientists personally get a cut of royalties as well.

New Markets for Biotech
The sheer scope of the invention is remarkable: The patent covers all seeds, both transgenic and everyday conventional varieties. Though it's only been tested on cotton and tobacco thus far, the inventors believe it could work on all major crops. In the past, seed companies have been reluctant to invest in wheat, oat, and rice seed markets, for example, because those crops are self-pollinating, i.e. can't be controlled reproductively; thus farmers can save the seeds, returning to the commercial market to replenish every five years or so. With the new gene technology, those farmers could be forced to buy every year, making bundles for companies in those markets.

"If commercially viable, the new technology could mean huge profits in entirely new sectors of the seed industry," says Hope Shand of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), an international public-interest group which dubs the new technology the "terminator" seed. "For farmers, the patented technology will undoubtedly mean greater dependence on the commercial seed market."

The USDA and Delta and Pine plan to license the new technology widely to seed companies, both American and foreign. "We will make this as readily available to our direct competitors as we would to people working in crops that we have no interest in," says Murray Robinson, president of Delta and Pine. "In the spirit of trying to help everyone we will certainly be open to companies in other countries protecting their technology or their proprietary developments."

While it may seem counterintuitive to share such a coveted technology with our neighbors overseas—especially since it was created to protect American corporate interests—it's really in Delta and Pine's, and USDA's, financial interests to spread it around. Selling licenses to the technology won't increase competition for Delta and Pine one bit.

"Seed companies compete on the quality of their seeds," explains Mark Wiltamuth, an agribusiness analyst with investment bank Furman Selz. "This [technology] doesn't add any quality." What it does, says Wiltamuth, is expand long-term growth and licensing opportunities for Delta and Pine.

How much does Delta and Pine stand to make? Because the technology hasn't been commercialized yet, it's hard to say, but previous USDA-private inventions give some idea. In 1994, a patent was filed for a new genetic engineering technique developed with USDA and private funds. Since then, 90 percent of the world's seed companies have taken a license in that technology, including Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred, and Novartis; it is expected to generate $2 million a year in royalty revenues. Given the same return on the new Delta and Pine/USDA invention, it would be $229,000 well spent.

The Future of Food?
The potential impact of the "terminator" seed is magnified by the continuing consolidation of the seed industry. With its continuing buyouts and multi-company deals to share research and distribution networks, the industry is getting mighty tight. Globally, according to RAFI, just 10 seed companies already control about 40 percent of the commercial seed market.

Critics of the new technology worry about the effect its widespread use would have, particularly in developing countries. They see it as a threat to millions of resource-poor farmers who depend on saving seeds, and exchanging seeds with neighbors, for their livelihood. Since the technology will enable multinational seed companies to enter second- and third-world markets, there is also the fear that greater amounts of identical crops will be grown worldwide, increasing monocropping and further eroding agricultural biodiversity. Some even see it as threat to world food security.

"If this were to take place, it would mean every single person in this country, and perhaps all the countries in the world where these seeds were in widespread use, would become dependent on the stability of the international seed supply industry," says Lawrence Busch, a sociology professor at Michigan State University. "The fact is that wars and civil disturbances and catastrophes of a natural variety occur. Those are the kinds of things that can wipe out seed supplies. If farmers can't plant the stuff that they harvest, and become totally dependent on this, you are really raising the ante on the possibility of mass starvation."

Industry sees an entirely different world. It's a place where companies can develop ever-improved seeds and expect farmers to pony up a return on their investment. They say seeds that yield more, require fewer harsh chemicals, and resist what the world has to throw at them—pests, disease, drought—may be our only hope for a withering environment and growing world population. These technologies, they say, may be our only way of averting mass starvation.

"If you're going to be in the game, you've got to go out and be proactive," says Delta and Pine's Robinson. "We have to go and work proactively even with the most disadvantaged countries to say, 'How can we help make you more productive?'"

Will the invention help make farmers more productive? What will it do for agriculture and ecosystems? In USDA's words, "We have no way of knowing at this point." What is clear is that the technology will provide impenetrable patent protection for the products of seed companies like Delta and Pine. It's understandable why any company, in any industry, would want that sort of protection; it's a stroke of brilliance from a business standpoint. The real question is, is this the sort of research that the USDA, an agency which regulates the seed business, should be doing?

As federal research budgets shrink, USDA, like other agencies, looks to the private sector for help. Its public-private partnerships have been an effective way to commercialize the extraordinary discoveries made by USDA scientists, a way to create a revolving fund for future agriculture research. But the private sector, understandably, is only interested in cooperating if the resulting innovations benefit their business; the result is a research environment that is more product-driven. Where does this leave traditional USDA research that serves farmers and consumers, but that promises no new profits for industry?

"The USDA patent on 'terminator' seeds puts us in a quandary, on the line that divides corporate greed and public interest," says Neth Daño of the Southeast Asian Regional Institute for Community Education, a Philippines-based group that works with resource-poor farmers. "Where does the USDA's interest really lie?"

When the sun sets on the 2004 growing season, it's a question many farmers, from Southeast Asia to South Dakota, may be asking themselves.

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