Critics raising alarm over 'sons of Terminator' seeds

SOURCE: Vancouver Sun, Canada
AUTHOR: CanWest News Service, Canada, by Kelly Patterson
DATE: 13.06.2007

Critics raising alarm over 'sons of Terminator' seeds
Sexually dysfunctional seeds raise spectre of crop contamination

OTTAWA -- Environmentalists are raising the alarm about the latest
development in genetically modified foods -- so-called "zombie seeds"
that are programmed to be sterile until treated with a special chemical.

These and other "sexually dysfunctional" seeds are being developed by
the biotech industry as a solution to the potential problem of
genetically modified plants contaminating conventional crops.

News of the effort emerges at the same time as the House of Commons is
debating a bill to ban the zombie seeds' predecessor -- so-called
Terminator seeds, which are programmed to be sterile to prevent
contamination. The question of how to contain genetically modified crops
has become urgent as scientists forge ahead with plans to design plants
that produce such drugs as antibiotics and industrial chemicals --
plants that all sides agree must not wind up in the food chain.

Wilfred Keller of the federal National Research Council says that, for
certain applications, Terminator and its successors "should be welcomed.

"A plant is a tremendous chemical factory that can produce products we
all need and want," says Keller, who has worked on Terminator-style
seeds in recent years. Canola, for example, could become a major source
of biofuel in coming years; one Calgary-based company is already
producing insulin from safflowers, Keller adds from his Saskatoon office.

But Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, an Ottawa-based biotech watchdog group,
says the industry is pushing for a "technical fix for a problem its
technology created in the first place," arguing that firms just want to
ensure control of the seed supply.

Developed in 1990s, Terminator seeds sparked fears that farmers in poor
countries would be forced to buy their seed from industrial producers
every year.

Critics also worried the seeds would decimate the food supply if the
sterility trait were to spread through genetic mutation or cross-
pollination to conventional crops.

Brazil and India banned Terminator seeds, and last year the UN
Convention on Biological Diversity reaffirmed a 2000 moratorium on the

Now "gene giants" such as Dow are trying to do an end run, says Thomas.

"They're going to go to the next [biodiversity] convention and argue
that sterile seeds are not a problem any more because the sterility is
reversible." If they succeed, it will "open the floodgates" to
controversial industries such as pharmacrops, he warns.

Scientists have so far come up with three "sons of Terminator," Thomas says:
- "Zombie seeds" are equipped with a "blocker" that prevents
reproduction, and a "recovering" mechanism that turns it back on when
the plant is exposed to a trigger.
- "Exorcist seeds" have genetically modified material that is programmed
to self-destruct, without hurting the plant, before reproduction occurs.
- "Pull-the-plug plants" are designed to look sickly, so they stand out,
or to carry a fatal susceptibility to a certain herbicide.