Monsanto Says It Will
NOT Produce 'Terminator'
Seed Technology
By Nigel Hawkes
Science Editor
Monsanto, the leading international company involved in genetically modified crops, has said that it will not develop the controversial "terminator technology".
The technique could make it possible to create GM plants that do not produce viable seeds. This would protect the investment made by the seed company as farmers would have to buy fresh every year.
Farmers in the Third World depend on seed saved from one year's crop to sow the next. If GM crops were equipped with the terminator gene, their usefulness to poorer countries would be greatly reduced, as farmers might not be able to afford new seed every year.
Monsanto has come under strong pressure from many agencies involved in world development to abandon the terminator gene. In a letter to Gordon Conway, chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, Robert Shapiro, chief executive of Monsanto, has undertaken to do so.
The company remains committed to biotechnology "as a safe, sustainable tool for farmers and an important contributor to the future success of agriculture in meeting the world's need for food and fibre", Mr Shapiro writes in the letter, made public by Monsanto. But it will not commercialise "sterile seed technologies, such as the one dubbed terminator", he says. "We are doing this based on input from you and a wide range of other experts and stakeholders, including our very important grower constituency."
The company always had mixed feelings about terminator. It did not develop the technique itself, but is in the process of merging with the company that did, Delta and Pine Land. Actual commercialisation of the terminator gene is at least five years away, and Monsanto scientists were uncertain if it would work. Given these uncertainties and the public opposition it aroused, the company has decided it is not worth pursuing.
Mr Shapiro does leave the door open for a more subtle approach. He says that Monsanto needs to protect its gene patents if it is to make a return on investment, and is studying a technique that would not inactivate the whole seed, but only the gene responsible for the introduced trait. That would mean that for the first year, the plants would possess the ability, say, to resist the Monsanto herbicide RoundUp. But seeds taken from those plants and sown the following year would produce normal plants without this trait. Mr Shapiro says that Monsanto is not spending any money developing such seeds, "but we do not rule out their future development".
Jim Thomas, of Greenpeace, the environmental group that campaigns against GM crops, said that the company had stepped back from its most "odious" piece of technology but remained committed to GM agriculture.