What are "terminator seeds"? How it works Advantages & Disadvantages of Seeds Future of "Termination Technology" References

Advantages & Disadvantages of “Terminator Seeds”

The use of ‘terminator seeds' in farming contains strong arguments from both advocates and critics of the technology. Agricultural companies view their “technology protection system” as a method to safeguard their interests. Opponents of the seeds, on the other hand, fear that it has the potential of harming food security and causing environmental problems (Steinbrecher, 1999). Both sides possess legitimate cases. The major debate concerns what is more important: company rights or individual rights.

  Compensation for Investment

The Rural Advancement of Farmers International (RAFI) views the development of the technology system as a method for increasing the profits of the large multinational companies at the expense of poor farmers (http://www.biotech-info.net/RAFI_abandon.html, 1999). Despite the provisions of Article 27.3(b) of the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Chapter of the World Trade Organization and Act of Union International Pour la Protection des Obtentions Vegetables (UPOV) which protects the companies' rights, most national laws permit farmers to continue the practice of replanting seeds (Gupta, 1998). The introduction of termination seeds will force poor farmers to buy new seeds every year even though they are unable to afford the cost. Since 15-20% of the world's food is grown on farms such as these, the inability of poor farms to buy new seeds may prevent farmers from growing crops. This problem may ultimately affect world food security (Shand, 1998).

Monsanto estimates that it takes about 10 years and $300 million dollars to produce a commercial product; therefore, the replanting of seeds by farmers prevents biotechnology companies for being compensated for their large investment (Knight, 1999). The current patents and laws prohibiting the replanting of harvested seeds are ineffective at controlling re-sowing of harvested seeds. “Termination technology” acts as a physical barrier to the replanting of seeds. It enables companies to protect their large investment into the new and improved varieties of crops (Blackledge, 1998).

Promotion of further research

Furthermore, proponents of the “technology protection system” maintain that profits gained from terminator seeds offer companies an incentive for investing in the research and development of new varieties of self-pollinated crops that cannot be achieved through traditional hybrid breeding methods (Cox, 1999). The investment in the creation of genetically modified crops through the use of terminator seeds benefits farmers by giving them continuous access to new and improved crops (Service, 1998).

Marginalization of the Poor

Small farm advocacy groups argue that the introduction of these types of seeds to the global market will force poor farmers to buy the seeds as well. Many poor farmers currently utilize the traditional method of farming consisting of saving seeds and exchanging them with neighboring farms. If neighboring farms begin to buy the termination seeds, poor farmers who exchange seeds with these farms will obtain sterile seeds from their crops. In effect, they will be forced to buy termination seeds as well (Shand, 1998). Delta & Pine Land argue that small farms have the decision to choose what type of seeds they want to use. The company states that they will continue to provide traditional seeds as long as there is demand for them (Rigel, 1999). Martha Crouch, seed geneticist and expert on traditional farming, argues that "large landowners, crop buyers, government programs choose the seeds small farms have to plant" (Dougherty,1999). If these groups find that the genetically modified seeds provide greater quality and yield, then small farms may be ordered to farm according to the demands of others (Dougherty,1999).


Environmentalists fear that “termination technology” will decrease biodiversity in two ways”. First, the transfer of genes from genetically modified plants to traditional breeds will result in the non-modified plants producing sterile seeds. They fear that this occurrence has the possibility of clearing out farms that are next to farms that use genetically modified organisms. Eventually, the contamination of non-targeted plants can lead to the loss of of crops (Hope, 1998). Secondly, the widespread use of termination seeds will reduce interbreeding and lead to less biodiversity. The lack of use of conventional seeds will lead to the loss of traditional seeds (Anbarasan, 1999). Some advocates of “termination seeds” argue that the development of new crops increases genetic diversity, not decrease it. Others, such as Oliver, believe that “losing crop diversity is inherent in the introduction of any improved crop” (Service, 1998).

Pollution of Non-traditional plants

Environmentalists are concerned about the possibility of gene transfer between genetically engineered plants and traditional, non-targeted plants. Advocates of the technology argue that it will help protect the environment by preventing the transgenic material from being transferred from generation to generation. Melvin Oliver, one of the plant physiologists who co-created the technology, argues that the seeds are created for self-pollination so they would not likely spread their pollen to traditional plants (Service, 1998). Advocates further state that any accidental cross-pollination between plants would lead to non-viable seeds, so the genetic material will not be transferred to non-targeted crops because any accidental pollination between the two will result in non-viable seeds after the first generation (Whipple, 1999). Environmentalists believe that pollination between genetically modified and non-targeted crops, the traditional plants may inherit the gene for sterile seeds. The production of sterile seeds by these plants would render the seeds useless. Therefore, farmers would not have viable seeds to sow for the next season. Another concern is the outcome that may occur when the “termination technology” does not function as expected. Mary Crouch brings up the point that gene silencing may occur and prevent the terminator gene from activating the release of toxins. If this occurs, plants that are contaminated with the gene may produce viable genes, but subsequent populations may not. This outcome can affect several generations of crops and produce irregular yields of crops (Dougherty, 1999).


Farmer holding traditional, non-modified seeds, 2004 (Permission Pending)


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