Suicide-seed sequel: EU's "Transcontainer" turns terminator into zombie

SOURCE: ETC Group, Canada/USA
AUTHOR: Press Release
URL: http://www.etcgroup.org/en/materials/publications.html?pub_id=634
DATE: 13.06.2007
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ETC Group today releases "Terminator: The Sequel," a Communiqué
reporting on new research related to "suicide seeds" and other
genetically modified (GM) seed technologies that pose unacceptable
threats to farmers, biodiversity and food sovereignty.

Today ETC Group reports on a new crop of genetic engineering
technologies that are being promoted as a biosafety solution to the
unwanted spread of transgenes from GM crops, trees and pharmaceutical-
producing plants. In practice, these technologies, if commercialized,
will allow the multinational seed industry to tighten its grasp on
proprietary seeds and to restrict the rights of farmers.

The 28-page Communiqué begins with an examination of the European
Union's 'Transcontainer' project, which is developing GM crops and trees
for Europe that could be "biologically contained" through "reversible
transgenic sterility." The three-year project, which is part of the EU's
Sixth Framework Programme, supports the goal of "co-existence" - the
controversial idea that GM crops and non-GM crops can peacefully co-
exist - and it aims to promote public acceptance of GM crops.
http://www.transcontainer.wur.nl/UK/About/

"We've always known that Terminator technology is simply too lucrative
for the seed industry to abandon," says ETC Group's Hope Shand, "but
it's outrageous that the European Union is using public funds to develop
genetic seed sterilization." Shand adds, "The EU-funded Transcontainer
project is especially disturbing in light of the European Parliament's
strong anti-Terminator stance only last year." The European Parliament
passed a resolution in March 2006 urging European delegates meeting at
the CBD (United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity) in Curitiba,
Brazil to uphold the de facto moratorium on Terminator. At the meeting
governments unanimously re-affirmed and strengthened the moratorium,
which recommends against the field-testing or commercialization of seeds
that have been genetically engineered to produce sterile seeds at
harvest. The United Nations uses the term GURTs (genetic use restriction
technology) to refer to Terminator.
http://www.etcgroup.org/en/materials/publications.html?pub_id=23

Apologists for the Transcontainer project argue that its 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," so that seed fertility can be recovered - most
likely through the application of a chemical. Hope Shand counters, "A
scenario in which farmers would have to pay for a chemical to restore
seed viability creates a new perpetual monopoly for the seed industry.
Even if these 'Zombie seeds' are not being designed with the intent to
restrict seed use, the reality is that farmers will end up having to pay
for the privilege of restoring seed fertility every year. Zombie seeds
are no more acceptable than suicide seeds - there is simply no such
thing as a safe and acceptable form of Terminator," adds Shand.

ETC's report also examines new research on gene excision technologies
(i.e., molecular methods to snip out transgenes at some point in a
plant's life). Dubbed Exorcist by ETC Group, the technology is a
strategy for both biocontainment and for restricting access to
proprietary germplasm. In theory, DNA-excision could be designed to
occur at any stage during the plant's development - before the GM plant
flowers and produces pollen, for example, or before it becomes food. The
excision process can be triggered by an external environmental or
chemical stimulus, or excision 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."

Finally, ETC Group's Communiqué examines "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 idea is that a "Pull-the-Plug"
plant could be killed by triggering the lethal gene - by the application
of an external chemical, for example - taking the GM trait down with it.
If the lethal gene is not triggered, the plant lives and can pass on its
foreign genes to the next generation. Ostensibly, these pull-the-plug
plants are being developed as a back-up strategy for last-resort
biological containment.

"There's also a more sinister possibility," suggests ETC's Silvia
Ribeiro, "that companies could pull the plug on plants they believe are
being grown without the proper licensing agreements. We've already seen
biotech companies resort to nasty tactics to ferret out farmers
suspected of possible patent infringement. Now companies could threaten
to trigger the lethal gene or they could simply apply the chemical
trigger to get positive or negative confirmation when they suspect the
farmer of patent infringement."

Ribeiro concludes, "Zombie seeds, Exorcist seeds and Pull-the-Plug
plants: these are all defective technologies that won't prevent the
unwanted spread of transgenes from GM crops. But if governments can be
convinced that biological containment of GMOs is possible using one of
these new techniques - or a combination of them - it will open the
floodgates to new markets for biotech plants, particularly GM crops and
trees grown for biofuels. The result will be more heavily subsidized
multinational companies and drastically increased risk of transgenic
contamination."

Governments meeting in Rome at the FAO's Commission on Genetic Resources
for Food and Agriculture are today considering a "code of conduct" on
biotechnology. "If anyone needs more evidence of the urgent need for a
biotech code of conduct, Zombie seeds and suicide seeds are it," says
Pat Mooney of ETC Group.

Civil society organizations convening in Berlin next week (June 18-21)
at the Second European Forum on Sustainable Rural Development should
consider requesting that the European Commission cease funding for
Zombie seed research, particularly because of its dangerous implications
for 1.4 billion people who depend on farm-saved seeds.

ETC Group's report concludes with recommendations related to these "dual
use" GURTs - new genetic modification techniques designed to contain
transgenes and restrict access to proprietary germplasm. The CBD's
scientific advisory body (SBSTTA) meeting in Paris, France, 2 - 6 July
2007 should recommend that governments meeting at the 9th Conference of
the Parties to the CBD (Bonn, Germany, 19-30 May 2008) strengthen the
United Nations' moratorium on Terminator by recommending a ban on the
technology.

For further information:

ETC Group (Carrboro, NC, USA)
Hope Shand
Kathy Jo Wetter
hope@etcgroup.org
kjo@etcgroup.org
Tel: +1 919 960-5223

ETC Group (Mexico City)
Silvia Ribeiro
silvia@etcgroup.org
Tel: +52 5555 6326 64

ETC Group (Ottawa, Canada)
Pat Mooney
etc@etcgroup.org
Mobile: +1 613 2610688 - in Europe until June 15

ETC Group (Montreal, Canada)
Jim Thomas
jim@etcgroup.org
Tel: +1 514 516-5759