Reuters New Service
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Agriculture Department was urged yesterday to abandon its support for so-called "terminator" genes, which prevent plants from producing fertile seeds that can be used to sow the next year's crop.
The department has helped develop the technology through a cooperative research agreement with Delta and Pine Land Co. , a cotton seed breeder. it also holds a joint patent with Delta and Pine on a technique for genetic seed sterilization.
The idea behind terminator genes is to allow a seed company to protect its investment in new varieties by requiring farmers to buy new seeds each year. That approach is at odds with a long-standing tradition of farmers holding back some of their grain from harvest to plant the following year.
"We think it's disgraceful that the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to support and defend genetic seed sterilization," said Hope Shand, director of research for Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), an advocacy group, at a news conference. "This is anti-farmer research and its an egregious use of taxpayer money."
Earlier this month, bioscience industry giant, Monsanto Co. , bowed to public concern over the new technology and promised it would not commercially develop terminator genes.
Monsanto does not yet have the terminator gene technology, but it plans to buy Delta and Pine Land. That purchase is still awaiting regulatory approval.
Gary Goldberg, president of the American Corn Growers Association (ACGA), a small activist farm group, said the Agriculture Department wrongly supported the development of terminator genes. "We expected more from you and you let us down," he said.
While the terminator gene has stirred criticism from U.S. and European groups, some biotech experts believe the controversial technology has already been overtaken by a new approach. Seed companies are now developing genetically modified seeds that can "turn on" a special characteristic - such as repelling pests or protecting a plant during drought - only if a farmer buys a specific chemical to treat the seeds.
At a separate news conference, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman told reporters the department would be examining "terminator issues" in the context of its cooperative research agreement. "That's the best I can tell you," he said.
In previous settings, Glickman has raised concern about farmers becoming "serfs" of seed companies.
Although terminator genes are not in any commercial seed varieties, sales contracts for new genetically-modified seeds generally require farmers to buy new seeds each year.
At heart, terminator gene technology is about having the ability to "turn off and on gene expression" in plants, a USDA spokesman said.
However troubling the terminator genes may be to some farmers, research in the area could still yield "other offshoots that might be beneficial," the aide said.
Representatives from RAFI, the corn growers and the National Family Farm Coalition will meet with Glickman on Thursday to state their case in person for abandoning the terminator gene technology. They want the department to redirect research funds to develop new seed varieties through traditional breeding techniques.
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Last Updated on 10/28/99
By Karen Lutz