by Thomas Peterson and Bryony Bonning, Departments of Agronomy, Zoology and
Genetics, and Entomology
Iowa State University, Ames, IA
Seeds for many high yielding crop varieties are patented and farmers are legally obliged not to save and use seed from the crop that they grow, but rather to buy more seed from the company. A technique has been developed to prevent farmers from saving or re-using patented seed. This technology results in the F2 seed (offspring of the plants grown by farmers) being inviable. This technology is called the trait protection system and is covered under US patent No. 5,723,765 (Oliver et al., 1998).
The plant genome is engineered so that it produces a protein that is toxic to the plant. The promoter that controls expression of the gene and subsequent production of the toxin is only active late in embryo development. In order to produce the transgenic F1 seed, a spacer is put between the promoter and the toxin gene so that the toxin gene is inactive. On either side of the spacer are sequences that are recognized by a "recombinase" enzyme that cuts out the spacer. This event brings the gene and promoter together so that the toxin is produced late in embryo development. A promoter that is activated by the chemical treatment of the seed sold to farmers controls the production of the recombinase. Thus, until the seed is chemically treated, the toxin gene remains inactive. The result of chemically treating seed purchased by farmers is that the farmer can buy viable seed and harvest the crop, but any seed collected from the crop will not grow. Opponents of the new technology refer to it as the "Terminator Technology".
The mode of reproduction of a crop plays a significant role in the seed industry.
Hybrid crops like corn, sunflower, sorghum automatically require that farmers purchase new seed each year to maintain yield. If farmers kept their own seed of hybrids, 50% of the advantage of growing the hybrid would be lost in the next year. The incentive for farmers to buy new seed of a hybrid each year is quite large.
Self-pollinated crops, like wheat, soybean, and rice do not require that farmers purchase new seed each year. This is because the seed harvested from the crop is genetically identical to what was planted. It is common practice both in the US and the rest of the world for growers of self-pollinated crops to keep and plant their own seed.
Brown bagging: The practice of farmers saving their own seed or "brown bagging" as it is usually called causes significant economic problems for commercial companies. Farmers may only purchase seed of a new variety once and in future years produce their own seed of this variety. This limits investment by the commercial sector in self-pollinated crop breeding because there is limited potential return on investment. Much of the breeding of self-pollinated crops is done in the public sector, both in the US and the rest of the world. Brown bagging has also limited the use of biotechnology in self-pollinated crops, because it is difficult to control this practice. Hybrid crops do not have this problem and offer built in protection for intellectual property.
Patenting crop varieties and requiring farmers to sign grower agreements has been one way of circumventing the brown bagging issue in the US. Both the patents and the grower agreements prohibit farmers from saving seed to plant the following year. There are obvious enforcement issues, but US farmers have been prosecuted for brown bagging patented crop varieties.
Even though hybrids offer a tremendous yield advantage in corn, hybrids are not grown by farmers world wide. Hybrid seed production can be expensive and technically challenging to subsistence farmers. For example in corn, nearly 100% of the US acreage is planted with hybrids and farmers purchase new seed each year. In contrast, 62% of the corn acreage in developing countries is planted with local germplasm or open-pollinated varieties, whereas only 38% is planted with hybrids. The local germplasm or open-pollinated varieties are grown from seed saved the previous year by the farmer, purchased from other farmers, purchased from a public or government agency, or in some cases purchased from a commercial company. Forty percent of the hybrid seed planted in developing countries is of public origin. The developing countries represent a potentially huge market for corn hybrids. The primary hindrance has been that farmers in developing countries do not have the capital to purchase hybrids and intellectual property laws are weak in developing countries.
The situation with a self-pollinated crop like wheat is much different. Greater than 90% of the US hard red winter wheat acreage is planted with publicly (usually from land grant institutions) developed varieties. The situation is very similar in developing countries. Biotechnology has not been introduced into wheat because companies have no way to protect investment in their intellectual property. Few commercial companies breed improved wheat varieties, because the return on investment from breeding is very low.
The case for introduction of the new technology - the industry perspective
International dialogue is required to address the potential impacts of this new technology on global agriculture and food production.
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Last Update 06/06/03