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Terminator seeds will not usher in an agricultural judgement day

“No” doesn’t really cover the nuances of the GM debate. Darko Vojinovic/AP

In the polarised and fractious debate over the use of genetic modification in agriculture, few issues have raised hackles as much as the proposed use of genetic use restriction techniques (GURT), more commonly known as “terminator technology” or – to its many opponents – “suicide seeds”.

The idea behind GURTs is to produce seed or offspring which are sterile in order to restrict the spread of new genes which have been introduced into the target plant. Campaigners against the technology have long alleged that terminator seeds would enslave farmers by preventing them from saving seed from one season to the next, making them dependent on re-purchasing seeds from big biotech companies. The furore over a decade ago led to a global moratorium on GURT development, agreed under the aegis of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 2000.

The popular fear about terminator seeds has since become something of a zombie myth: constantly cited by opponents of GM technology as a reason for their campaigning, despite GURT never actually having come into existence. Lurid claims continue to be circulated, such as the allegation – originally by Indian anti-technology activist Vandana Shiva – that sterility would somehow be inherited and transferred unintentionally to other plants, despite this being biologically, as well as logically, impossible.

Following renewed campaigning by anti-GM groups, a recent article disinterred these zombie myths once again. It suggested that new legislation under consideration in Brazil could lead to “suicide seeds” that might “threaten the livelihoods of millions of small farmers around the world”. But the truth in Brazil is very different to this media sensationalism and renewed activist myth-making.

It is true that Brazil is considering relaxing regulations that prohibit research on GURTs. However, this would be applied to pharmaceuticals, not food crops. It is aimed in particular at allowing scientists to examine whether the technology could have biosafety applications – applications that would safeguard the environment against the unintended release and spread of modified genes. Currently the law prohibits scientists even from conducting research – a ban on knowledge gathering that is senseless and potentially damaging.

Among the pharmaceutical uses where GURT technology might be useful is the development of “bioreactor” plants such as lettuce modified to produce a vaccine to prevent Leishmaniasis, a disease that causes serious deformities or scarring in victims. Around 12m people are believed to be infected, with an estimated 1-2m new cases each year, and a further 350m people, mainly in poor countries, are at risk. Plants are good candidates for the production of the necessary antibodies because, like animals, their cells are eukaryotic and able to reproduce the necessary complex proteins at a large scale.

Another example is genetically-modified lettuce to assist in the diagnosis of Dengue fever, where early detection dramatically increases the chance of survival. In both cases there is currently a shortage of the materials needed both to identify and treat the disease, which can only be produced in extremely secure facilities. If GURT restrictions were loosened, genetically modified plants could potentially produce the needed vaccines and diagnosis tools on a larger scale without fear of the altered genes spreading into the environment.

Many other crops, including tobacco, alfalfa, banana and soybean have been considered for bio-pharming to produce drugs against conditions that range from cancer to HIV/AIDS. Industrial applications have also been proposed, such as genetically modified trees with reduced lignin content which would enable the use of less toxic chemicals for pulp and paper production, as well as to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

In all these cases, sterility could have a biosafety justification, in order to safeguard against unintended gene release. Indeed, last week researchers at the University of Oregon announced the conclusion of successful trials using sterile, genetically modified poplar trees. These grow faster and are more resistant to insects, potentially more productive for biofuels, and are intended to be able to reduce land wastage and the use of pesticides.

It is somewhat ironic that with all their focus on terminator technology, anti-GM activists seem to fail to realise that either sterility or seeds that do not breed true are already widely used in conventional agriculture. Seedless grapes, watermelons and bananas are prized by consumers around the world, and despite their sterility have apparently not yet enslaved the farmers who grow them.

F1 hybrids – the offspring of two different parent varieties of the same crop – also require farmers to buy seeds anew each year, because their second-generation seeds do not breed true. But their use has been increasing for decades because farmers value highly the increased productivity, and therefore profits, that come from the seeds’ hybrid vigour. Almost all the world’s commercial corn crop is grown from F1 hybrid seed, for example.

As these existing examples show, this application of modern technology to agriculture need not be remotely scary, but activists stoke fears in order to secure prohibitions on scientific research which conflicts with their ideological preferences. Opponents of innovation frequently cite the precautionary principle as a reason to stop scientific work, but neglect the flip-side: namely future benefits foregone when technologies are not pursued.

A continued ban on GURT may sound sensible and precautionary, but could harm our potential to develop lifesaving vaccines and environmentally beneficial crops. Scientists should be allowed to conduct research, and society can later decide– through open, inclusive and democratic debate – how or if these technologies are later deployed more widely.

This article is co-authored with Lúcia de Souza, plant biologist and vice president of the Brazilian National Association of Biosafety (Associação Nacional de Biossegurança), ANBio.

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