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Tuesday, October 5, 1999 Published at 15:17 GMT 16:17 UK


Terminator gene halt a 'major U-turn'

Future work on the technology has not been ruled out

The decision by the biotechnology giant Monsanto never to commercialise so-called "terminator gene" technology for crops has been called "a major U-turn that will send shock waves across the industry", by the charity Christian Aid.

Scarlett Foster of Monsanto: "We were hearing concerns about what is a very new technology"
Environmental group Friends of the Earth also hailed the announcement saying Monsanto had been forced to "respond to enormous worldwide opposition to its plans".

But a spokesman for the European Association for BioIndustries dismissed much of the criticism of genetically-modified crops as "scandalous propaganda" and said many non-genetically-modified (GM) crops did not produce viable seeds either.

Food under the microscope
Inserting terminator genes into crops would prevent them from producing fertile seeds, meaning farmers would have to buy new seeds, rather than saving part of their harvest to plant next year's crop.

Monsanto said that after consultations with experts and customers, it was making a public commitment never to commercialise sterile seed technologies.

The commitment came in a letter from Monsanto chairman Robert Shapiro to the philanthropic organisation, the Rockefeller Foundation.

The BBC's Gavin Hewitt: "Prices for corn and other grains are at a record low"
The letter said: "Though we do not yet own any sterile seed technology, we think it is important to respond to those concerns at this time by making clear our commitment not to commercialise gene protection systems that render seed sterile."

The technology might still be used in internal research, the company said. And the genes could help create plants in which certain characteristics can be switched on and off.

Andrew Simms of Christian Aid, a development charity, said the move was a major reverse: "Terminator technology was the lynchpin of a strategy to protect corporate royalties in developing countries.

[ image: Cross pollination by bees could spread 'Terminator' plant genes]
Cross pollination by bees could spread 'Terminator' plant genes
"Up until last year, the US Department of Agriculture [who own a key patent] expected that within a short period of time you would not be able to find seeds that did not use terminator technology."

Pete Riley of Friends of the Earth said the move was an attempt by the food giant to win favour in the press. "It is only a gesture and it will cost them nothing. There is nothing to stop them introducing it at a later date."

The firm does not at present own any sterile seed technology but it is expected to acquire it through its long-planned acquisition of cotton seed breeder Delta and Pine Land, which co-owns the patents with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The purchase is awaiting regulatory approval in the US.

Patrick Holden from the Soil Association: "This isn't the end of the matter"
Monsanto spokeswoman Scarlett Foster said the company would refuse to license the USDA-Delta project if the cotton seed company was acquired.

Paul Moyes, spokesman for the European Association for BioIndustries, said that the effect of terminator technology was not anything new: "Plant breeders and farmers have preferred hybrid seeds for more than 30 years because they were more productive. This means they have to buy their seeds again every year because hybrid seeds can only be used once."

But Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, approved of the development. "We welcome this move as a first step toward ensuring that the fruits of plant biotechnology are made available to poor farmers in the developing world," Mr Conway said.

And Richard Lewis, a US lawyer who plans to take legal action against Monsanto, says many farmers are already prohibited by their contracts with the firm from re-planting the GM seeds that they harvest.

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