What is the terminator gene?
The terminator gene, which was named by the media, is a technology designed to allow normal development of a seed but prevents the germination of the seed. It has two functions. First, it can be used to prevent the spread of transgenic plants. This is especially important for transgenic plants that have a transgene that should be contained, e.g. a plant containing a gene for a potent medicinal agent. Secondly, it can be used to protect intellectual property by preventing unauthorized use of the technology.
Is the terminator gene unfair to the farmer?
The concept that seeds saved by a farmer may not be viable is not new. All the corn grown in N. America is hybrid and many crops will be hybrids in the future. Although the seeds of hybrid plants will germinate they will not breed true and will produce inferior offspring. Farmers choose to buy new seeds each year because the increased value of the crop makes this worthwhile.
There should be a requirement that open pollinated varieties (i.e.those in which the seed can be saved) will always be available so that farmers will always be able to grow crops and save the seeds for a subsequent planting. However, the advantages of a transgenic or hybrid crop may be too great and will make in some cases open pollinated varieties obsolete.
It is wrong for biotechnology companies to be able to patent new varieties of crop plants, charge a premium for the seeds and then prosecute farmers who save seeds?
The development of new crop varieties by any means, but especially by biotechnology, is a costly exercise to the tune of tens to hundred of millions of dollars.
The premium on prices for seeds is to defray this cost and ultimately make a profit for the company involved. The cost of developing a new plant variety is large so the premium for seeds of transgenic seeds has to be spread over a number of years. Farmers could not afford to buy the seeds if the costs were to be recovered in a single season. This does, however, raise the problem of monitoring the use of seeds to prevent illegal storage of seeds by farmers for planting the following year. This can be the source of problems for the company involved as well as for the farming community.
When a farmer buys patented seeds there is an agreement not to save the seeds and use them for a subsequent crop, since it will take many years for a company to recoup development costs. The breaking of such a legal agreement as with any other legal agreement could lead to court action. A farmer who saves seeds is in effect stealing the technology.
The only alternative to this is government development of new crops and this was the situation not too long ago. However, it is very expensive and probably less efficient than using the private sector. Government labs should now concentrate on monitoring the industry.
The aims of a biotechnology company are not unique in that their objective is to make a profit for their shareholders and to develop new products to maintain their position in the marketplace.