GENTECH archive


Move to Stop Terminator - tech

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 17 Jun 1999 19:14:13 -0700
From: Edward Hammond <>
To: Multiple recipients of news - Sent by <>
Subject: RAFI: SBSTTA Must Move to Stop Terminator

Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI)
News Release - 18 June 1999

	 	**  SBSTTA DELEGATES: You are invited to  **
		**  attend a briefing on GURT/Terminator  **
		**  technology immediately following the  **
		**  morning session on MONDAY 21 JUNE at  **
		**  1:00PM at the SBSTTA venue.  Room to  **
		**  be announced.  Light snacks will be   **
		**                served.                 **

                     Montreal Meeting of the Biodiversity
                 Convention Must Move to Stop the GURT Hurt

*** SYNOPSIS:  The UN Convention on Biological Diversity's Subsidiary Body
on Scientific, Technical, and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) meets in
Montreal next week (21-25 June) and will discuss terminator and traitor
technology.  Dubbed "GURTs" (Genetic Use Restriction Technologies) by the
UN, terminator technology has been studied by an independent panel of
SBSTTA scientists who have tabled their report to governments.

Industry's credibility problem on terminator technology is worsening as
public statements of questionable judgement and accuracy continue.  These
include statements in communications to SBSTTA delegates.  Governments have
good reason to be concerned that they may not be hearing the whole truth
from industry giants like AstraZeneca and Monsanto.

If GURTs are allowed, they may effectively strip governments of their
intellectual property policymaking power.  As "hardware protection", GURT
technology could be used to control traits and varieties indefinitely,
thereby creating de facto perpetual patents. "Stacked" GURTs involving many
proprietary genes may also move toward "bloatware" seeds prone to
side-effects and unpredictable internal and environmental interactions.
Additionally, SBSTTA needs to consider the possibility of GURT weapons.

The combination of global anger over greed-driven, anti-farmer terminator
tech and concerns about perpetual patents and stacking should move
governments at SBSTTA to recommend a UN inquiry into the factors that are
causing private sector research to become so focused - arguably obsessed -
with the creation of malignant seed technologies.

*** INDUSTRY CREDIBILITY PLUMMETS:  When government delegates to the
Biodiversity Convention's SBSTTA register and pick up their meeting
documents on Monday morning, they will find among the papers an open letter
from AstraZeneca's Research Director, Dr. D.A. Evans.  (AstraZeneca, a
UK/Swedish multinational, is the owner of Verminator technology, a GURT
designed to addict plants to proprietary chemicals.) Seeking to allay
concerns, Evans begins his letter - dated February 24 - by saying:

  "Firstly let me state categorically that Zeneca is not developing any
   system that would stop farmers from growing second generation seed,
   nor do we have any intention of doing so."

But less than one week before the Evans letter, on February 18, the
company's US joint venture - ExSeed Genetics - received a world patent (WO
99/07211) on a new technology whose purpose precisely contradicts
AstraZeneca's statement.  From the patent:

  "There remains a need for an inducible lethal trait in seed of a
   number of plant species.... the present invention is a method of
   preventing volunteer plants from developing from fallen seed
   which includes planting and growing the germinateable mature
   seeds of the present invention and applying an activator to the
   plants produced therefrom, to produce daughter seeds or embryos
   which will not germinate."

Fallen or saved, it does not matter.  In either case the invention prevents
farmers from growing second generation seed, unless the farmer buys a
proprietary chemical.  ExSeed's Research Director and the inventor, Dr.
Peter Keeling, was previously a senior scientist employed directly by
AstraZeneca.  In the past, ExSeed and Zeneca have cooperated to jointly own
rights to several patents.  According to RAFI's Executive Director Pat
Mooney, "It is indisputable that AstraZeneca's letter does not tell
governments the whole truth.  Observers may wish to draw their own
conclusions as to why."

But the confusing statements from industry don't end with AstraZeneca's
embarrassing predicament.  A Monsanto statement also included in the
government delegate's documents asserts that the US umbrella group
InterAction (an NGO) "has agreed to work with its members and other groups
to help... a thorough, independent and comprehensive consideration be given
to the concerns raised about the impact of new gene protection

InterAction, however, denies that they have been contacted by Monsanto.
Says RAFI's Pat Mooney "What's going on here?  Monsanto seems to be calling
for a de facto moratorium and for a global dialogue.  This is commendable,
however the company says it is working with InterAction to develop the
process. First, the rest of the world has never heard of InterAction.
Second the issue is wider than Monsanto, it involves at least 13
patent-holders in a half-dozen countries. Third, InterAction denies that
they have been contacted by Monsanto and agrees that they don't have the
competence to address the issue."

Industry is expected to be present in force at SBSTTA and to vigorously
promote terminator technology.  Delegates will have difficult work deciding
if company statements are to be considered reliable.

*** THE FIRST LETTER DOESN'T MATTER:  The SBSTTA science report draws a
sharp distinction between so-called "V-GURTs" (V for "variety") and
"T-GURTs" (T for "trait").  The difference is the level at which the
terminator function operates.  In V-GURTs, such as DeltaPine's original
Terminator patent, a lethal function in the plant stops reproduction of
viable seed entirely, the second generation is sterile.  In T-GURTs, an
inhibiting function operates at the gene level, such that the plant may be
able to produce viable seed; but certain proprietary traits (for example,
drought or disease resistance) will not be expressed in subsequent
generations unless external chemicals are applied. The SBSTTA report is
harsh in its criticism of V-GURTs; but treads much more softly on T-GURTs,
which it naively claims may help farmers.

"While the T-GURT/V-GURT distinction may be helpful in understanding
terminator science," says RAFI's Edward Hammond, "the report authors erred
in suggesting the distinction might be meaningful in a policy context. In
fact, it would result in impractical and ineffective rules."  Numerous
T-GURTs exist - indeed almost all known iterations - which share the
negative characteristics of V-GURTs.  For example, AstraZeneca's Verminator
is a T-GURT, since it addicts plants to chemicals rather than killing seed.
Similarly, Novartis has patented a technique to use T-GURT technology to
disable a plant's natural disease resistance, making it more likely to
require chemicals.

"Clearly," says Hammond, "these T-GURTs and an unlimited number of future
variants share most if not all of the V-GURT disadvantages.  SBSTTA cannot
be so simplistic in its approach.  Recommending a ban on V-GURTs while
forgetting T-GURTs will give a green light for the sale of
chemically-addicted, genetically-mutilated seed. Companies will ensure
profits by building V-GURT disadvantages into T-GURT platforms.  They're
already doing it, and in the future the trend will accelerate as techniques
become more refined and companies realize the seed production profit
advantages of T-GURTs."

"Instead of following the faulty distinction," says RAFI's Research
Director Hope Shand, "SBSTTA should recommend a ban on all forms of
terminator/GURT seeds. If, in the future, new GURTs are proposed which are
purportedly beneficial for farmers and biodiversity, very specific
exemptions from the ban might be made.  These should be considered on a
case by case, gene by gene basis and, if approved, then placed in the
public domain. By banning the technology outright, governments can study
the social and economic impacts in their own national context before
putting their farmers and biodiversity at risk.  Regulators will be able to
establish that a scientific, social, and ecological consensus exists that a
specific GURT in a specific variety is indeed just, safe, and beneficial."

"But," Shand adds, "the GURTs that the life industry is currently patenting
fall light years short of meeting even those simple tests.  Terminator
apologists like the US Department of Agriculture argue that the technology
should not be banned because sometime in the future there might be a few
very limited beneficial uses. USDA's reasoning is desperate.  SBSTTA should
ban GURTs, and then maybe, just maybe, in the future governments will
decide to approve an exception or two.  If it's the other way around,
whatever motivates industry pocketbooks will be unleashed and governments
will have little chance to stop it."

*** PERPETUAL MONOPOLY:  As the number of patented GURTs has dramatically
expanded, so too have concerns that the technology is a threat to
government prerogative on intellectual property policy.  The subtly and
variable combinations of GURTs may be used to give create indefinite
physical monopoly over traits, without the legal monopoly of a patent. This
problem has been clear to many developing country governments for some
time, following DeltaPine's haughty 1998 boast of its goal to sell millions
of hectares of terminator cotton, rice, and wheat seed in developing
country markets.

Now it is becoming clear to Northern governments that terminator's
beyond-intellectual-property threat extends to them as well.  According to
the SBSTTA report authors:

"...patents can only be obtained when an invention can be claimed. Instead,
the V-GURT technology, at least in principle, may be applied to any seed,
novel or not....  patents have a finite time duration... while the V-GURT
technology may be used indefinitely.... the V-GURT technology would confer
an absolute anti-copy protection in the sense that the seed could not be
reused by any farmer, either large or small scale. Protection would not be
dependent on legal procedures..."

RAFI maintains, as explained above ("The first letter doesn't matter"),
that this observation by the SBSTTA scientists with respect to V-GURTs will
apply to all industry GURTs.  Industry T-GURT varieties will be the
practical equivalent of V-GURTs because of their built-in dependencies on
chemicals in order to express traits critical for successful farming.

*** GENETIC BLOATWARE AND SIDE-EFFECTS:  US Government scientists and
private sector researchers envision the loading of multiple GURTs into
plant varieties to create complexes of proprietary genes each turned on (or
off) by its own chemical trigger.  But much like unreliable computer
programs with complicated features that make basic tasks difficult, cause
problems with other software, and create technical dependencies, the
stacking of GURTs in plant varieties poses potential problems.

Called "bloatware" in computer science, the possibility of unduely complex,
difficult to predict bloatware seeds may be in farming's future.  RAFI's
Mooney asks "Will farmers have to shop for seeds like pharmaceuticals...
consulting the label for interactions and side effects?"  Hammond adds, "If
this happens, much of it sadly would be unnecessary since so many of the
traits companies want to link to GURTs are either negative or are genes
that would be linked to chemicals for economic instead of agronomic
reasons."  Adds Mooney, "Companies won't be able to resist the temptation
to profit by 'GURTing' everything, when in fact the vast majority of
'value-added' traits might not need a chemical trigger and could be more
useful and require fewer inputs if regulated by natural cycles."

*** GURT WEAPONS:  While there is no overt offensive genetic warfare
research being conducted anywhere in the world, the potential for GURT
weapons is undeniable. According to the SBSTTA science report, in 3 to 7
years new GURTs are expected that will be "more robust and penetrant, but
at the same time much harder to detect and police, due to the subtle and
potentially non-transgenic nature of the changes made... "

A GURT encoding, for example, a suicide sequence such as the University of
Texas' patented GRIM gene might be introduced through tainted seed, inputs
laced with a recombinant vector (such as a genetically engineered virus),
or an air or waterborne microorganism. Such a GURT could easily proliferate
undetected and not cause any harm until triggered.

A GURT weapon trigger would be a very specific chemical or environmental
condition, probably in and of itself relatively benign; but lethal in the
presence of the GURT.  It could, for example, be a chemical sprayed from
the air, or a compound found in agricultural inputs.  The GURT might also
be constructed to be triggered by the environment, for example by linking
GRIM genes to a promoter sensitive to heat.  In the GRIM example, once the
GURT has proliferated, the appropriate chemical or environmental condition
would trigger the cell death wherever the GURT was present.

Like GURTs in general, GURT weapons might be applied to virtually any plant
species, including major crops.  GURT bombs could be used on domesticated
and other animals.  In fact, the University of Texas has already
experimented with its lethal GRIM system in mammalian cell cultures... of
course for non-military purposes.  Additionally, such GURT weapons would
not have to be used to be effective: their mere existence for particular
crops or environments would be enough to exert a compelling influence over
potential victims, who might starve or face economic collapse if the
weapons were used. GURT weapons would also likely be very inexpensive
compared to other arms and be amenable to plausible deniability because of
their extreme stealthiness.

At this point GURT weapons hopefully remain theoretical; but they are
easily envisioned.  The shadow of GURT warfare provides additional
compelling reasons for SBSTTA to call for a ban of the technology and for
governments to consider classifying some GURTs as potential weapons.

*** IN MONTREAL:  Because of the objections of a very small number of
countries, the Bratislava COP compromised and backed away from declaring
GURTs for what they are:  a dangerous and immoral technology that poses
threats to farmers, biodiversity, and food security.  This SBSTTA should
make - especially considering the additional information now available - a
clear statement that GURTs are a malignant technology. SBSTTA should make a
clear recommendation to COP V that it pass a resolution deciding that
parties shall ban GURTs in their country and advising them to reject GURT
patents on the basis of public order and morality.

Finally, in light of the Terminator, Verminator, and numerous other efforts
underway by the private sector to deliberately incorporate negative traits
into seeds, SBSTTA should recommend that, in conjunction with other UN
bodies, the CBD should participate in an international inquiry into the
underlying factors which are causing private sector seed research to
produce anti-farmer and anti-diversity technologies.