WASHINGTON, D.C.--A battle is brewing over a new plant technology that allows companies to ensure that genetically modified plants produce sterile seeds--a feat that will keep farmers coming back for fresh seed year after year. Companies say the innovation is needed to safeguard their investments in improved plant varieties, but an array of critics contends that it will further marginalize the world's poorest farmers and erode crop biodiversity.
This week, the world's largest agricultural research organization--the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)--is expected to adopt a statement recommending that its 16 member institutes ban use of the technology in their crop improvement projects. This largely symbolic move--CGIAR is a nonprofit research outfit that freely gives away its technology--dramatically raises the profile of the technology's critics.
At the heart of this battle is U.S. patent 5,723,765. Issued last March to researchers at a little-known cotton seed company called Delta & Pine Land (D&PL) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the patent covers a technique for transferring three genes along with their genetic on switches into the seeds of genetically improved plants. When the master gene of this trio is dormant, the seeds will grow into plants that will produce healthy seeds of their own. But when a company activates the gene before selling the seeds--by exposing them to the antibiotic tetracycline, for example--the plants produce a toxin in their own seeds that kills them. D&LP's head of technology transfer, Harry Collins, says the technology is designed simply to protect agricultural companies' intellectual property.
But critics point out that subsistence farmers in developing countries often buy small amounts of improved varieties and breed them with local varieties to bolster yields. That practice obviously wouldn't work with sterile plants. CGIAR officials also worry that pollen harboring seed-sterilizing genes could pollinate nearby crops, rendering their seed sterile as well.