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2-Plants: SBSTTA/CBD bows to US pressure

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TITLE:  Counries resisting sterile seed risk economic sanctions
SOURCE: Environmental News Service, by Catherine Lazaroff
DATE:   July 6, 1999

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Countries Resisting Sterile Seeds Risk Economic Sanctions

WASHINGTON, DC, July 6, 1999 (ENS) - An international convention
on biodiversity has declined to call for substantial restrictions
on the use of bioengineered sterile seeds, often called
terminator seeds. This lack of strong action is leading some
critics to warn that the seeds could cripple small farmers and
jeopardize the ability of developing countries to ensure reliable
food supplies. The United Nations Convention on Biological
Diversity (CBD) adopted a resolution at a Montreal meeting ending
June 25 calling for a cautious approach to the use of the seeds,
which experts say will not be on the market for several years.
But the CBD also noted that countries that refuse to buy the
seeds run the risk of economic sanctions from countries selling
the seeds.

There are 175 countries that have ratified the treaty, but the
United States is not one of them, Although it signed in 1993, the
U.S. is not a Party to the treaty and had only observer status at
the Montreal meeting. Still, the United States has a strong
interest in keeping this sterile seed biotechnology free of
restrictions because U.S. companies, such as Delta Pine & Lands
of Mississippi, hold patents on the technique. Representatives of
the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), an
international civil society organization headquartered in
Winnipeg, Canada, say economic sanctions could force developing
countries into dependence on genetically engineered crops, thus
reducing worldwide biodiversity.

SBSTTA-4 Chair Zakri A. Hamid of Malaysia called for
establishment of a structured scientific body for the Convention.
The CBDıs scientific arm, the Subsidiary Body on Scientific,
Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) met in Montreal from
June 21 to June 25 to discuss a number of issues, including new
technology that can control the expression of a plantıs genes.

The new bioscience, called genetic use restriction technologies
(GURTs), allows companies to create plants that grow to maturity
but produce sterile seeds. Seed companies could therefore prevent
farmers from gathering seeds from mature crops and planting them
the following season. Instead, farmers would be forced to buy new
seeds each year. The companies say the GURTs, popularly known as
terminator seeds, will protect their research and development
investments in genetically modified (GM) crops. Biotechnology
companies such as Monsanto are making modifications to crops to
add resistance to herbicides, increased shelf life or better
nutritional value. These modifications can be linked to GURTs,
preventing farmers from buying modified crops once and using the
seeds for future plantings. The United States representative to
the Montreal meeting noted for the report that the U.S. could not
associate itself with any implicit call for a moratorium on
testing or commercialization of GURTs.

Terminator seeds could have unpleasant side effects, both
commercial and biological. Pat Mooney, executive director of
RAFI, says his group has uncovered 31 patents on terminator genes
that cause seed sterilization in the final stages of plant
growth. Nearly every large agricultural and biotechnology company
has a patent he says, raising the possibility that every seed
sold could someday come with a terminator tag. "Only three
companies were marketing GM seeds last year," Mooney told ENS.
"This year, the global market for GM seeds will be dominated by
six or seven companies that will all have patents for terminator
technology." When asked if farmers were likely to accept
terminator seeds, Mooney said, "I think it's unavoidable. Farmers
are not stupid, but farmers will not have choices." Competition
in the marketplace will force farmers to choose seeds that
promise the highest crop yields, which are often GM varieties.

Farmers could become dependent on the biotechnology companies for
an ongoing supply of the terminator seeds. "What happens if a
company decides one area is not a profitable marketplace?" asks
Mooney. Moving away from crops with viable seeds could threaten
developing countries' ability to insure a reliable food supply
from one year to the next, he says. Biologically, using new seeds
each year will reduce the diversity of the crops. If farmers are
planting only a small variety of modified seeds, and these seeds
cannot exchange genes with nearby fields through cross
pollination, eventually the gene pool for the crops could be
severely restricted. A restricted, inbred gene pool can be wiped
out by the arrival of a new disease or predator. There is also no
guarantee that the modified genes would not spread to related
plants. Though experts do not consider the scenario likely, the
specter looms that other plants could take up the terminator
genes and go extinct in a single season.

Richard Jefferson, chief author of an expert assessment reviewed
by the CBD and chairman of the Center for the Application of
Molecular Biology in International Agriculture (CAMBIO),
presented an overview of the core technology and biology behind
GURTs at the meeting. Jefferson noted that GURTs do not need to
produce terminator seeds. Instead, crops could be programmed to
only express desirable traits like resistance to herbicides when
they are exposed to a particular chemical, which biotechnology
companies could sell separately. A company could protect its
financial investment in developing GM crops by, in effect,
charging extra for the modified traits. These crops would still
produce viable seeds which farmers could use for future crops.

The CBD declined requests by several member countries for an
international moratorium on terminator technology. In its final
resolution, the group recommended continued study into and
development of GURTs, and urged cautious application of the
technology in experimental and commercial plantings. The U.S.
made what Mooney calls a "strong statement" to the CBD warning
that countries that enact moratoriums against GURTs could face
economic sanctions. "The tragedy is that the CBD, which is
supposed to be the bulwark of biodiversity, sort of embarrassed
itself," Mooney says. The CBD's weak resolution may threaten the
power of the group to influence international policy among its
175 member countries.

"GURTs challenge the legal sovereignty of developing countries
over their biodiversity, a cornerstone of the CBD," says Mooney.
"If the Convention cannot take a stand on Terminator, what can it
do?" The CBD convention next year in Nairobi, Kenya could be the
six year old groupıs last chance to prove itself as a viable
policy making body. Mooney says, "If it doesn't come in with a
bang...governments will decide itıs just not worth attending." 

-| Hartmut Meyer
-| Co-ordinator
-| The European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering
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-| Germany
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