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Genetic Use Restriction Technology: Seeds of Destruction?

By Ian Maxwell (GranvilleSouthMay 23, 2008
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Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT) is a controversial topic. On one hand, seed companies argue that GURT is necessary & offers advantages to growers. On the other, forms of GURT such as suicide seeds have been labelled a threat to diversity & the autonomy of agricultural producers around the world. Let's take a look at this issue & some of the controversy that surrounds it.

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"Terminator is a direct assault on farmers & indigenous cultures & on food sovereignty. It threatens the well-being of all rural people, primarily the very poorest."
Rafael Alegría, Via Campesina.

One way in which seed companies compete is through development of new crop strains via the wonder of genetic engineering. This is done at considerable expense, meaning these corporations are keen to capitalise on & protect their inventions from what they consider piracy. The result is normally patenting of genetic property. Unfortunately, these same safeguards are seen as a threat to traditional farming practices around the world. In some countries, growers are struggling to protect traditional crop strains from contamination by modified varieties. Such producers face the prospect of losing locally-adapted & sometimes culturally-significant varieties but that is not all. There are also legal ramifications as corporations habitually prosecute in quest of profits from cross-pollinated crops. [1]

It is not all one way traffic though, as growers are learning to fight back. For example, an important battle currently being fought is the case brought against two companies - Monsanto & Bayer - by a collection of organic farmers called the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate. In the words of the SOD ...

"The court case on behalf of all certified organic farmers in Saskatchewan began in 2002 & was instrumental in bringing public attention to the liability issues surrounding GMO contamination. The organic farmers sought an injunction to prevent the introduction of GMO wheat. Monsanto withdrew its plans to introduce Roundup Ready wheat in 2004. The farmers continued their action to seek redress for losses due to the virtual elimination of organic canola as a crop due to widespread contamination of seed stock, as well as for losses due to unwanted GMO canola plants contaminating organic fields."

The question of who is responsible for cross-pollination is a critical one. In the words of the Rural Advancement Foundation - USA, "GMOs are a legal minefield for both growers & their neighbors". Nonetheless, compared to producers in poor countries, the Saskatchewan farmers have a good chance of seeing a favourable outcome. In other cases, unwitting growers have been ruined by the legal consequences of cross-pollination. [2]

As controversial as patenting, is the fact that some corporations do not intend to rely on it. During the 1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) combined forces with the Delta & Pine Land Co. to commence development of Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT). Some readers would know of Terminator Technology or "suicide" seeds. These seeds - genetically prevented from germinating after one generation - represent one form of GURT. Varietal or v-GURT provides automatic protection for seed corporations but there are fears that it also presents a danger to the way of life of millions of people. [2]

There are conceptually two types of GURT.

  1. v-GURT.
    This type of GURT produces sterile seeds meaning that a farmer that had purchased seeds containing v-GURT technology could not save the seed from this crop for future planting. This would not have an immediate impact on the large number of farmers who use hybrid seeds, as they do not produce their own planting seeds, & instead buy specialized hybrid seeds from seed production companies. The technology is restricted at the plant variety level - hence the term v-GURT. Manufacturers of genetically enhanced crops would use this technology to protect their products from unauthorised use.
  2. t-GURT.
    A second type of GURT modifies a crop in such a way that the genetic enhancement engineered into the crop does not function until the crop plant is treated with a chemical that is sold by the biotechnology company. Farmers can save seeds for use each year. However, they do not get to use the enhanced trait in the crop unless they purchase the activator compound. The technology is restricted at the trait level - hence the term t-GURT.
Wikipedia

The potential impact of cross-pollination with a suicide crop has provoked considerable opposition to Terminator Technology. Brazil & India have already passed laws banning it & Canada is on the way. The United Nations passed a five year moratorium on the development of GURT, which it re-affirmed in 2006. Additionally, numerous government & non-government organisations, scientific bodies & indigenous representatives have acted against v-GURT to the extent that in 2001, Monsanto - the current owner of patents on terminator technology - announced that it would not be commercialising it. Nonetheless, the vigil remains as away from the public-eye the push for v-GURT introduction continues. Notably, the Australian government supported it until 2006 when public opposition resulted in a retreat from attempts to undermine the UN moratorium. [3] [4]

The future of GURT remains to be seen but outside seed corporations & the US government, there is little support for it. As a potential threat to bio-diversity, suicide seeds are a particularly worrying prosposition. This does not mean the arguments in favour of GURT should be entirely discounted or that we cannot discriminate between v & t-GURT. Somewhere hopefully, we will find a balance between the rights of corporations on one side & both, the traditional rights of people & the diversity of nature, on the other.

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Footnotes:

  1. Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations - Potential Impact of GURTs (sic)
  2. Convention on Biological Diversity
  3. Legal Restraint of GURT
  4. Canadian Food Inspection Agency


  About Ian Maxwell  
Ian MaxwellA life-long vegetarian, community gardener & member of Australia's SeedSavers network. I love plants both within the garden & in the wild. Trees are a special passion that I hope will prove infectious.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
How to Identify? crewchief333 0 9 Nov 19, 2008 11:16 PM
Genetic engineering, 101 gloria125 26 155 Jun 5, 2008 2:11 PM
We've been asleep too long cybercrone 3 18 May 31, 2008 3:09 PM
Suicide seeds or nature killing jjacques 4 47 May 24, 2008 4:17 PM
Good One phicks 0 11 May 24, 2008 12:59 AM
Scary stuff seedpicker_TX 2 38 May 23, 2008 10:39 PM
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