Terminator technology threatening African farmers' rights

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afrol News, 21 June - By Tinashe Madava

The introduction of a new genetic seed modification in southern Africa will erode farmers' rights and the ominously named terminator technology is said to be a ploy by multinational companies to control seed availability. Terminator technology modifies crop seeds making harvested seeds sterile, which enforces corporate patents on genetically modified seeds.

Crops modified for male sterility, some of which are grown on a large scale in southern Africa, include rapeseed, corn, tobacco, cotton, potato, petunia and lettuce.

Long controversial genetic modification has been called an infringement of basic human rights since it prevents farmers from saving, replanting and exchanging seeds, practices going back thousands of years that are still essential to food security.

Multinational food and biotechnological corporations, armed with patent rights and terminator technology have invaded developing countries under the guise of working towards improving food security.

The terminator technology has been widely condemned by civil society, scientific bodies and many governments as an immoral application of agricultural biotechnology. If commercialised, it would force farmers to return to the commercial seed market.

- Terminator (gene) technology is a growing business in southern Africa, says Clever Mafuta, head of the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre's (SARDC) environment programme. "It is practised mainly by seed companies with the intention of keeping a market for themselves. The technology is not harmful to the environment, but disadvantages the poor."

He explains the technology forces farmers to plant "specially-bred" seed obtainable only from patent owners, and anything harvested from that crop will either fail to germinate when replanted or will not bear any crop. This means the farmer must always to go to the supplier for new seed. All major maize and vegetable seed companies in Zimbabwe are adopting this technology.

Mafuta says terminator technology will not affect the cotton industry as it has always been mandatory that all cotton stalks be destroyed at the end of every season, as a way of avoiding carryover of diseases to the next season. Additionally, the "separation of lint from seed cannot be done at home, implying that one should always buy cotton seed regardless of whether that seed is developed through terminator technology or otherwise."

He emphasizes that terminator technology is one way of forcing farmers to co-operate, to their detriment and the profit of, seed companies. Small-scale farmers will be affected most because their revenue base is weak.

A recent legal case involving a farmer and a US based multinational, Monsanto, bears testimony to what awaits farmers in southern Africa under the influence of the international companies and their terminator technology.

In a case that activists have labelled as a crushing blow to farmers' rights, a Canadian judge ruled that a third generation Saskatchewan farmer, must pay Monsanto thousands of dollars for violating the company's patent monopoly on genetically modified canola seed.

Under Canadian patent law, as in many industrialized countries, it is illegal for farmers to re-use patented seed, or to grow Monsanto's genetically modified seed without signing a licensing agreement. "The ruling against the farmer establishes an even more dangerous precedent because it means that farmers can be forced to pay royalties on genetically-modified seeds found on their land, even if they didn't buy the seeds, or benefit from them," says the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), an international organization based in Canada.

The Canadian farmer in question did not buy Monsanto's patented seed, nor did he obtain the seed illegally. Pollen from genetically engineered canola seeds blew onto his land from neighbouring farms. (An estimated 40 percent of farmers in western Canada grow genetically modified canola). Monsanto's canola genes invaded the farm without his consent.

Shortly thereafter, Monsanto's "gene police" invaded his farm and took seed samples without his permission. He now has to pay licensing fees and share profits from the crop with Monsanto.

The canola pollen that drifted onto farm was engineered to withstand spraying of Monsanto's proprietary weedkiller, Roundup. But, in this Canadian case the farmer did not use Roundup on his canola crop. If he had, the chemical would have killed the majority of his canola plants that were not genetically modified to tolerate the weedkiller. However, the court's ruling says he's guilty of infringing the patent and using the seed without a licensing agreement. This case serves as a warning to southern Africa.

- If commercialised, (modified) seeds will destroy national seed sovereignty and threaten global food security, especially the 1.4 billion people who depend on farm-saved seeds and local plant breeding, says RAFI. The organization contends that if the gene giants are allowed to develop a new generation of plants whose traits can be switched on or off with the application of proprietary chemicals, farmers all over the world will become slaves of multinational companies.

New patents describing genetically modified plants with weakened immune systems that would ultimately depend on the application of a chemical to regain their natural defences against pests and disease are the most troubling examples of traitor technology to date and this will adversely affect small scale farmers.

When terminator technology came to light in March 1998, "suicide seeds" shattered the myth that commercial biotechnology aims to feed hungry people. Critics say the seeds have become synonymous with corporate greed, and blatantly expose the industry's goal of maximizing profits by destroying farmers' rights and seed sovereignty.

RAFI says that unless governments take action to ban these technologies, terminator seeds will be commercialised. Governments will have important opportunities to reject terminator at the World Food Summit in November.

By Tinashe Madava, Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC)

Tinashe Madava / Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC). 
This article can be reproduced with credit to SARDC and the author

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