terminator & related technologies

The terminator

On the 3rd of the March 1998 The US Department of Agriculture and cotton seed breeders Delta and Pine Land Company acquired US patent 5,723,765 for their “Technology Protection System” (TPS). This system for genetically engineering a suicide mechanism into seeds of the next generation was dubbed the “terminator” technology.. On May 11th Monsanto announced its intention of buying Delta and Pine Land Co. for $1.76 billion. This was widely seen as a move to gain the terminator patent.

This technology offers no benefit for farmers or consumers. The only advantage would be to commercial seed companies hoping to force farmers back to market each season to purchase seeds.70% of the worlds farmers, mostly in the south, are reliant upon farm-saved seed. The potential threat to small farmers has caused widespread outrage and protests. Indian farmers who uprooted and burned Monsanto’s GE cotton test plots were fuelled by their anger about the terminator, even though these were not themselves terminator crops. There are 100 million farmers in India and 80% are dependent on farm-saved seed. In December 1998 the Indian Agricultural Minister Som Pal was forced to assure the Upper House that terminator would not be allowed in India.

On September 15th 1998 Astra Zeneca received US patent 5,808,034 on it’s own terminator type technology. This was branded the “verminator” as the genes were taken from brown rats. All five companies developing GE seeds have now applied for their own terminator style patents. In November of 1998 The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the world network of publicly funded plant breeding research centres announced that none of its centres would develop “any genetic system designed to prevent germination”.

In April 1999 Monsanto announced the postponement of the commercialisation of the terminator pending an independent review. Astra-Zeneca followed in May announcing it would not develop “technology which results in sterility in second generation seed”. For the time being the tide seems to be turning against the terminator. If these companies are allowed to go ahead with commercialisation of this technology, the profit potential of the terminator trait dictate it would soon be included in all GE crops.

Switchable promoters

The willingness of Astra-Zeneca to abandon the terminator may have something to do with its interest in genetically engineering plants whose traits are controlled by a “switchable promoter”. This system allows traits to be switched on or off by application of a chemical catalyst. Sterility is just one of the traits which could be under the control of such promoters. Astra-Zeneca have at least seven patent applications on different promoter systems.

This technology could be used to create plants whose desirable traits would be switched on only by the application of a chemical. Farmers will have to buy seed and the chemical that goes with it. What could be more logical for companies than to put the required chemical in its own herbicide or pesticide?

Astra-Zeneca’s patent WO 973983 covers a system which creates GE plants that require continuous exposure to a chemical for germination and healthy growth. GE companies aim to enforce the link between seeds and chemicals and extract further costs from farmers.

GE companies will be able to produce seed that contains multiple GE traits, farmers will have to pay for the chemical to activate each specific trait. RAFI who originally coined the name terminator call this “traitor technology”.

Apomictic seed

Apomixis is a naturally occurring form of asexual reproduction in which plant embryos grow from egg cells without fertilisation by pollen. Genetic engineers have transferred the genes conferring apomixis from a wild grass species into maize. By using GE apomixis breeders could dramatically reduce the high cost of producing hybrid seed.

The combination of switchable promoters with apomixis enables the creation of seed that would produce viable plants that would grow and produce viable seed only when treated with chemicals. Rather than the annual cost of producing hybrid seed, the GE giants would simply need to produce the seed once, and then extract the costs from farmers through the chemicals to switch on the traits, including the apomictic trait, each season.

This would spell massive profits for the GE companies and their complete control over non-subsistence agriculture.


The terminator patent was origionally discovered by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI).
RAFI continue to watch carefully developments in this technology