‘Terminator’ transgenics

‘Genetically engineered crop seeds that turn sterile after first use threaten Indian farmers’; ‘Scientists flay terminator gene; seek immediate government intervention’; ‘Terminator seed’; ‘Seed material with terminator gene banned’; ‘Terminator gene may sneak in despite ban’; ‘US co. not to be granted patent for terminator gene’; ‘Centre warned of the repercussions if terminator gene sets foot on Indian soil’; ‘IISc caught in terminator wars’.

The above is a sample of the headlines that have appeared in the past few months in our reputed general and financial newspapers. Much more than due publicity has been given in the press to the so-called ‘terminator’ gene technology and its hazards have been over-exaggerated. I wish that the newspapers give equal coverage to the more positive developments in crop biotechnology. The over reaction, not only of the activists and reporters, but also of the agricultural scientists calls for a more rational, scientific appraisal of the possible hazards. The multinational company Monsanto which is indicted for the ‘terminator’ refers to the new concept as ‘the gene protection technology’. Monsanto has clarified that the technology is conceptually developed by Delta and Pine Lands (D&PL), and an idea patent has been filed jointly with the US Department of Agriculture in USA1. While Monsanto has stated that ‘terminator’ seeds or plants do not exist, one report mentions that the technology has been tested in tobacco and cotton2. It is also reported that the Government of India has banned the import of this technology, and further, the patent will not be granted to this technology in the country.

I would not go into the need for such technology; it can be argued both in favour or against. The intention here is to examine the ‘terminator’ threat and the concerns that have been raised in the press. It is important to recall that just about 10 per cent of the area sown in the country uses the purchased seed, the rest is planted with seed saved by the farmers from the previous harvest. Seed industry has many players, including the Government-owned National and State Seed Corporations and several local, and a few multinational private seed companies, mainly selling hybrid seeds of vegetables, cotton, sunflower, sorghum, bajra and maize. In the absence of any protection of the breeder’s rights, private seed companies are reluctant to develop and sell seeds of self-pollinated crops. Hybrid seeds are protected by guarding the parental stocks, and if the produce is used to raise the next crop, yield is significantly lower.

Only if the concept works satisfactorily, the ‘gene protection’ traits would be introduced in other predominantly self-pollinated crops. Let us assume that the technology works well and is profitable for the seed company. For introducing such transgenics in the country, the company will have to follow the biosafety regulations for experimentation and field release of transgenic crops. It would require approvals from the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBSC), Review Committee for Genetically Modified Organisms (RCGM) of the Department of Biotechnology and the Inter-Ministerial Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GAEC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests,

besides the mandatory evaluation under the Coordinated Crop Improvement Programmes of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and/or the State Agricultural University before they can sell the seed. The new cultivar with ‘gene protection’ traits should also be significantly superior to the existing cultivars to compensate for the higher seed cost. Farmers will buy the seed of new cultivar only if they are convinced of tangible benefits and higher returns from the crop raised using new seeds, just as they pay a higher price for hybrid seeds of several crops mentioned earlier. It is difficult to understand how a seed company can force the farmers to plant only the seeds which they sell. How can any company make the farmers dependent upon their seed alone? This does not happen in other areas, for example, in pharmaceuticals or pesticides used by the farmers. Even for life-saving drugs, cheaper, though less effective, alternatives are always available. The apprehensions raised undermine the intelligence, and economic sense of the farmers. Even an illiterate farmer knows what is profitable for him.

It has been argued that some companies or individuals may smuggle such seeds and grow them. Items are smuggled only if they are advantageous, and imports are not permitted or are highly taxed. Besides how much area can be planted with smuggled seeds? In case of transgenic seeds, it would be violation of the law, and a crime under the environmental protection act.

Spread of ‘gene protection’ transgenes into other cultivars grown in the neighbouring fields, through pollen is a possibility which will have to be examined in depth by the IBSC and RCGM

for each crop. The out crossing rates vary from less than 1% in most self-pollinated crops to 15–20% in often cross-pollinated crops such as pigeonpea (Cajaus cajan). However, the resulting seed of the outcross would not germinate and hence, would be the ‘dead end’ for the gene spread. Thus, the apprehensions raised on the spread of such genes to other crop cultivars and ill effects on natural biodiversity lack sound, scientific basis. Such seeds cannot ‘wreak havoc’ with our agriculture or ‘end our entire biodiversity’ or ‘cause famine and political instability’ as reported3.

We as a nation fail to accept the realities. Though we have signed the WTO agreement, mandatory legal means for the protection of crop varieties, the plant breeders rights, and intellectual property rights are delayed. Crop Variety Protection would eliminate the need for ‘gene protection’ in self-pollinated crops and attract private plant breeding initiatives. The public and private plant breeding efforts, including transgenics, should complement each other to
provide better seeds to the Indian farmers. Above all, the priority should be to make available certified seed of the new cultivars already released and notified.

  1. US firm allays fears on terminator gene, The Hindu, New Delhi edition, 28 August 1998.
  2. US co. not to be granted patent for terminator gene, Economic Times, New Delhi edition, 3 August 1998.
  3. Seeds of discontent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi edition, 26 July 1998.


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