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Patent on Seed Sterility
Threatens Seed Saving
By
Volker Lehmann
 
 
 
Keywords:  Genetic engineering; Biosafety/Foodsafety; Private industry; Monsanto Company; United States of America; Tobacco; Patent law; Relation public-private sector.
Correct citation: Lehmann, V. (1998), "Patent on Seed Sterility Threatens Seed Saving." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 35, p. 6-8.
 
A patent recently granted on a technology which produces sterile seeds has revived the discussion on the consequences of in-built biological protection against seed saving. Seed companies see this as an incentive to develop new varieties. But what will be the consequence for farmers in developing countries if they cannot re-use their harvest as seed material?

In March 1998 the US Patent No. 5,723,765, entitled "Control of plant gene expression" was granted jointly to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the American Delta and Pine Land Company (D&PL). The patented technology genetically modifies plants in order to prevent seeds from germinating in the next generation (see box 1). Farmers who buy such seeds will be able to produce and harvest a crop, but will not be able to save seeds from their harvest and sow them in the next year. Instead, they would have to buy seeds from seed companies each year. The technology was developed for tobacco and cotton but is potentially applicable to all crops that are propagated by seeds.

Control of seed germination 

The technology changes the genetic makeup of a plant cell. Plants regenerated from this cell will develop seeds which will not germinate in the next generation. The technology is based on the transfer of a combination of three genes: 

* A gene coding for a toxic substance which is lethal to the plant embryo. This gene is linked to a 
  blocking sequence which prevents the activation of the toxic gene. 
* A so-called LOX gene. This gene contains the information for a protein which cuts out the blocking 
  sequence linked to the toxic gene. 
* A repressor gene with the code for a protein which suppresses the LOX gene. 

Normally, the repressor gene is switched on and the LOX gene is therefore switched off. In this case the blocking sequence of the toxic gene remains intact and the crop is as fertile as a non-modified crop. Only if the seeds of such a plant are treated with a "chemical trigger", the repressor gene will be switched off and the LOX gene be switched on. Consequently, the toxic substance will be produced and prevent the plant embryo from germination. During the development of this technology, the antibiotic tetracycline was chosen as a trigger because it does not occur in nature. By this, accidental trigger of seed sterility becomes improbable. 
To apply this technology for commercial seed production, crops would be grown without chemical treatment. Then, before the harvested seed is sold to the farmer it would be treated with a trigger substance such as tetracycline. Due to the natural regulation of the plant embryo development, the chemical treatment will cause the production of the toxic substance and lethality at a later stage of the embryo. Plant growth, harvest and yield remain unaffected. An alternative, probably more sustainable approach, which replaces the chemical trigger, would be to supply the three different elements by a crossing of two lines. The repressor gene will be expressed only in the first offspring generation, but the next generation seed becomes sterile. 
The patent claims a very broad protection. It is valid for plant cells, tissues, seeds and whole plants of any species containing the above combination of genes.

 
Seed sterility as technology protection system
According to Sally Miller Hayes from the USDA the new method was developed to study plant gene expression. But as the inventors from D&PL add, its main future application will be the development of so-called "technology protection systems" against free use of technology. "Protection systems help insure that individuals and companies developing new traits and technologies for commercial varieties have the ability to earn fair return on their investment." Biological protection preventing the re-use of purchased seed has been the aim of plant breeders ever since the improvement of crops became a commercial activity. In cross-pollinated crops, such as maize and sunflower, hybridization provides such a protection. Hybrids render an increased vigour, heterosis, but do not produce offspring that is of the same quality as the first generation. Therefore, farmers are forced to buy commercial seed every year.
Hybrids are in principle also feasible for self-pollinated crops such as wheat, beans, rice and barley. However, due to technical difficulties, they are not attractive economically. Plant breeding for these crops is therefore based on the transformation into pure lines. These pure lines "breed true", which means they can be reproduced identically without any loss of agronomically beneficial traits. Consequently, farmers do not have to purchase new seed material every year.

A threat to farmers’ independence?
The patented technique has been dubbed "Terminator technology" by groups such as the North American non-governmental organization (NGO) Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). In RAFI’s view this technology will terminate farmers’ independence and threaten the food security of over a billion resource-poor farmers in developing countries. Overall in these countries, farm-saved seed accounts for an estimated 80 per cent of the total seed requirement. On the other hand, according to Harry B. Collins from D&PL, farmers in developing countries will still have the choice between saving seeds of traditional varieties and newly developed cultivars protected by this technology. The inventors claim that it will stimulate plant breeders’ interest to develop new varieties of crops for which hybrids are not feasible such as wheat, rice, cotton and soya beans. Farmers will profit from this new development because they will gain broad access to continuing agricultural improvements and more productive varieties. Furthermore, Collins maintains that the incentives to breed new varieties will enhance genetic diversity in many important crops. The Europe based NGO Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN), however, rejects this view because biodiversity cannot be reduced to packages in breeding lines. GRAIN maintains that seed saving is necessary for farmers to adapt the seeds to their own needs, thereby generating and nurturing biodiversity in their fields.
The inventors of the sterile seed technology claim that it can be applied as a safety technology. In D&PL’s view, the escape of transgenic traits to wild or other non-targeted plants becomes impossible because seed produced from unwanted pollination will not germinate and therefore be non-viable. On the other hand, this effect has been criticized by GRAIN on biosafety grounds. Since the genetic information for sterility is also contained in the pollen, cross-pollination and gene transfer to adjacent crops could accidentally spread sterility. A farmer trying to save seed from a conventional variety, grown next door to a sterile seed variety, might find that the yield would be drastically reduced, due to non-germination of seeds.

Public funding for private technology distribution
This new technique was partly developed and funded by the USDA. Why does a public institution support a technology that has no direct agronomic benefit for farmers? As documented by an interview with RAFI, the USDA’s goal was "to increase the value of proprietary seed owned by US seed companies and to open up new markets in Second and Third World countries."
However, the idea to stimulate private companies’ breeding activities by providing a technology which enables them to regain their investment is not new. In the 1930s, the US industry succeeded in promoting the research on hybrids as the central aim in public breeding. The creation of economically profitable maize hybrids was the initial thrust for the development of a private seed industry in the USA which developed and commercialized new varieties with ever increasing yields. Hybrids generally must have 15 to 20 per cent higher yields than non-hybrid, open-pollinated varieties (OPVs) to render economic feasibility. For farmers, the surplus of increased yields makes up for the extra cost of buying new seed every year.
Will this newly-developed technique stimulate plant breeding in a similar way? The inventors have applied for patents in at least 78 countries. At the same time, USDA and D&PL announced to make the technology widely available to many seed companies via licensing agreements. D&PL sees this as a guarantee for competition between the different seed suppliers which will be decided merely on agronomic benefits for the farmers. Although tobacco was used during the development of this technology as a model plant, the first commercialized crop is expected to be cotton. D&PL hopes to market the first cotton varieties protected against seed saving in 2004.

Aquisitions and mergers
The size of a patent holder can have major influence on the introduction of a new technology. In this respect, the patent on sterile seeds has gained weight considerably within only three months.
D&PL is the world’s largest cotton seed enterprise, with sales of US$ 183 million in 1997. The company uses traditional breeding programmes and modern bio-technology to develop cotton varieties with improved crop yield and enhanced fiber characteristics. However, in May 1998, the US company Monsanto announced that it would purchase D&PL for approximately US$ 1.9 billion. In recent years, Monsanto has shifted its main activity from chemicals towards agricultural chemicals, biotechnology and seed production. Before the takeover, Monsanto already held a minor share of 8 per cent in D&LP, and in December 1997 the two companies jointly started a cotton seed venture in China. D&PL has developed cotton and soya beans tolerant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup and employed Monsanto’s Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) technology for breeding pest-resistant cotton. Together with its own cotton activities Monsanto will account for 85 per cent of the US cotton seed market.
According to Monsanto’s agricultural sector PR director Karen Marshall, the acquisition of D&PL was not motivated by the patent held on sterile seed production. Since the purchase is not yet finished, D&PL is still owner of the patent and Monsanto has no say on how to use the technology and on which crops, Marshall says.
However, it is obvious that Monsanto’s interest in protecting its own varieties against seed saving will benefit from this acquired technology. Next to cotton, soya bean could be an attractive target. In 1997, about 13 per cent of the commercially planted soya bean acreage in the USA contained Monsanto’s herbicide resistance technology. Farmers using Monsanto’s Roundup resistant soya bean varieties have to agree in a contract not to save and replant the patented seed. Biologically induced seed sterility would help Monsanto to enforce this restriction.
Meanwhile, in June 1998, it was announced that Monsanto would merge with the US pharmaceutical and health care company American Home Products. The exchange volume of shares will be approximately US$ 33 billion, which is the sixth largest corporate merger ever. The conglomerate emerging will have annual sales of US$ 23 billion and will be amongst the five largest enterprises in terms of world pharmaceutical, agricultural chemical, veterinary medicine and seed production.

Seed sterility on the international agenda
International public organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have not yet officially commented on the sterile seed technology. However, the issue was discussed at the meeting in May 1998 of the Conference of Parties (COP IV) to the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). The parties adopted a decision which called for a precautionary approach to consider "whether there are any consequences for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity" from the development and use of the new technology. The Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) is requested to produce a background document based on which the Secretariat of the CBD will come to an official position.
Of special interest is the position of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) which sees as its mandate the promotion of agricultural research for the poorest. According to Manuel Lantin from the CGIAR Secretariat, this technology could potentially affect resource poor farmers adversely. If all new varieties would be rendered seed-sterile, farmers who cannot afford to purchase seeds every year would be deprived of the benefits from improved varieties.
Within the CGIAR, the discussion on the benefit of transgenic technologies is still open. Traditionally, the CGIAR has proven its expertise in phenotypic plant breeding. But in Bioengineering of Crops, jointly published with the World Bank in 1997, it is stated that transgenic crops could improve food yields by up to 25 per cent in developing countries. How will the CGIAR react to the development of a technology that would make seed saving impossible for self-pollinated staple crops? Obviously, the introduction of seed sterility makes no sense for crops that are developed for the public domain. But what will be the consequence if private plant breeders do include this protection mechanism into their cultivars? Will this lead to competition with the CGIAR centres on the development of crops such as wheat and rice which are of prime importance as world staple crops?
A technology to produce sterile seeds is also in contradiction to the CGIAR’s efforts to transfer apomixis into crops. Apomixis is a type of asexual reproduction which leads to offspring genetically identical to the parent line. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the French governmental development agency ORSTOM developed a technology to transfer apomixis into hybrid maize. Farmers therefore could profit from the hybrid vigour without purchasing hybrid seed yearly.

Future developments
Will farmers in the developing world profit from incentives given to the private seed industry in industrialized countries,  namely the USA? Several arguments can be raised against this opinion.
* Newly developed varieties. Seed protection will probably lead to higher and safer private companies’ investments into plant breeding. However, this will not necessarily lead to the development of new varieties beneficial to developing countries. It is more probable that seed companies first will focus on the biological protection of cultivars already commercialized or under development. Many of them are adapted to input-traits such as herbicide resistance rather than to poor environments and stress. If new varieties are developed, markets in industrialized countries are still a more attractive target.
* Freedom of choice. Of course, farmers’ choice between varieties containing seed sterility and non-sterile ones will not vanish from one day to the next. The consequences will rather become visible in the longer term: private or public breeders who want access to improved, newly developed germplasm might be forced to accept seed sterility as a licensing requirement. Once these crops enter the market, they will influence the exchange of breeding material in the informal seed sector
* Seed safety. Farmers who have to rely on the commercial seed sector for seed supply become more vulnerable to all sorts of disturbances of, for instance, transportation or markets to raise capital for purchasing seeds. Furthermore, farmers would no longer be able to adapt their crops to environmental variation.

Control over seed material is the baseline of agricultural practice for most farmers in developing countries. Any technology that undermines this prerequisite is not likely to have a positive impact on food security.
Volker Lehmann

Editor Biotechnology and Development Monitor

Sources
H.W. Kendall, R. Beachy, T. Eisner, F. Gould, R. Herdt, P. Raven, J.S. Schell and M.S. Swaminathan (1997), Bioengineering of Crops. Report of the World Bank Panel on Transgenic Crops. ESDS Monograph Series: 23. World Bank, Washington DC, USA. Worldbank.

http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepage/genethicsnews

http://patents.uspto.gov/

http://www.rafi.ca

Personal communications with H.B. Collins (D&PL), S. Miller Hayes (USDA), G. Henne (SCBD), M. Lantin (CGIAR), K. Marshall (Monsanto), A.R. Martinez (GRAIN) and M. Zimmermann (FAO).



Contributions to the Biotechnology and Development Monitor are not covered by any copyright. Exerpts may be translated or reproduced without prior permission (with exception of parts reproduced from third sources), with acknowledgement of source.

 


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