Monday, June 18, 2007

Coming to a field near you: Zombie and Exorcist seeds

A new crop of genetic engineering technologies are being promoted as a solution to the unwanted spread of transgenes from genetically-modified (GM) plants. In practice, these technologies will allow the transnationals to tighten their grip on proprietary seeds and further restrict the rights of farmers. The European Union is pushing one project forward, despite opposition from its own parliament and other groups who reject what is known as ‘terminator’ technology. These are seeds developed by biotech corporations that have built-in destruction after one application. The ETC Group, which promotes agricultural diversity and human rights, is warning in a new report Terminator: the Sequel about the implications of the EU’s “transcontainer” project. This is aimed at developing GM crops and trees for Europe that could be "biologically contained" through "reversible transgenic sterility." ETC’s Hope Shand says: “We've always known that terminator technology is simply too lucrative for the seed industry to abandon but it's outrageous that the European Union is using public funds to develop genetic seed sterilisation." ETC rejects the claim that the transcontainer project’s aim is not to restrict seed use but to contain transgenes, and that the technology under development differs from terminator because the seeds' sterility will be "reversible"- most likely through the application of a chemical. ETC Group dubs these “Zombie seeds” which would create a scenario in which farmers would have to pay for a chemical to restore seed viability.

If you thought “zombie seeds” were bad news, you haven’t heard of new research on gene excision technologies. Molecular methods are used to snip out transgenes at some point in a plant's life. Dubbed Exorcist by ETC, the excision process can be triggered by an external environmental or chemical stimulus, or it can be designed to occur automatically at a particular stage in the plant's life. ETC’s Kathy Jo Wetter explains: "In its current state, Exorcist is far from a failsafe biocontainment strategy - it won't work 100% of the time - but even if Exorcist can't fully contain transgenes, it could still function as a biological method to enforce patents by restricting access to proprietary traits." And there are "extreme" biocontainment methods - molecular methods involving "conditionally lethal genes" capable of terminating plants and their transgenic DNA in the event that other containment strategies fail.

The strategy of the biotech corporations like Monsanto is clear. They want to convince governments and the public that biological containment of genetically-modified organisms is possible using one of these new techniques - or a combination of them. It would then open the floodgates to new markets for biotech plants, particularly GM crops and trees grown for biofuels. The result will be a drastically increased risk of transgenic contamination. What the ETC investigation demonstrates is that as soon as one door is closed on the corporations, another one opens, facilitated by the actions of the EU and other pro-market states. The ETC advocates better regulation and governance as a way of halting this process. This is a laudable but, quite frankly, hopeless ambition. The corporations rule the planet and only a massive social transformation of capitalist society is going to put an end to that.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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