From the Editor's Desk
Imagine flying over the United States in late summer looking down on waving fields of wheat, cotton, soybeans, and sorghum. Although you can't tell from the air, all the plants below you are sterile. Each of them has been genetically engineered to produce an exquisitely targeted dose of poison to its own seeds. Sound like a nightmare. Not if you are an executive in an agricultural biotechnology company. To you, it's a celestial vision.
Why? Because then farmers will not be able to save and plant seed. They will have to trek back to the company every year to purchase new seed. More purchases, more profits. What could be more beautiful?
This vision is not a pipe dream. The sterilization technology exists--just barely--and is one of the cleverest applications of biotechnology yet. Described elsewhere in this issue, the application, which is based on complicated interactions among three new genes, has been accurately dubbed the "terminator." The cleverness lies not in the sterilization itself--the toxin genes that are the heart of the terminator technology are relatively easy to add but would be of little use if they acted immediately. No, the genius of the application is in its precise timing for the production of the toxin and in the "switching" feature that allows the process to be controlled from outside the plant.
With this system, toxin genes can lie dormant generation after generation until activated by a misting with an inducer--probably the antibiotic tetracycline. The antibiotic sets in motion a chain of events that will eventually produce a toxin that kills growing plant embryos. But the embryos are not killed until almost the end of seed development. Thus, although the plants are sterile, they are healthy and replete with mature seeds.
What does the advent of the terminator technology mean? Well to begin, it doesn't improve crop yield or qualities. What it does is allow the private sector to extract more money from farmers for annual seed purchases. Whether such a technology should be welcomed or shunned depends on the appropriate role for the private sector in seed development and the market context within which future food companies will operate.
For the past century, the public sector played the major role in developing new seeds for US farmers. But over the years, the private sector has done more and more of the research. And now, the public sector seems in danger of fading from the scene completely. This means that the terminator technology will emerge in a seed marketplace already dominated by large multinational corporations with the incentive and ability to employ it or similar technologies.
There are so few such companies that the prospects for monopolies or quasi-monopolies loom. The classic societal penalties for monopoly--higher prices, reduced choice, and slowed innovation--are bad enough but just the beginning. The implications of the concentration of power in the food system, which the terminator will exacerbate, go deeper than high prices. Those who control the food system will have an inordinate say over our economy, our food production systems, and the use of our land.
Much else is troubling about the terminator. The pollen of the terminator seeds may carry ready-to-act toxin to nearby plants which would unexpectedly produce dead seeds. The toxin that kills the seeds may affect birds or mammals that feed in fields. Dead seeds may spoil more readily than live ones. These and other issues will need to be assessed before the technology becomes commercially available.
The good news is that the terminator is not going to be on the market anytime soon. So far, not a single variety has even come far enough to be field tested. In fact, according to Dr. Harry Collins at Delta and Pine Land (the company soon to be acquired by Monsanto that holds the patent on the terminator), company scientists so far have yet to succeed in putting the full set of terminator components into any plant beyond an experimental tobacco system and have yet to test any seeds outside the greenhouse. In fact, the company estimates that it will be 2005 before it has the first terminator-containing crop--cotton--on the market. That means society has some time to consider not only the terminator's environmental and health implications but also the pernicious effects such a technology might have in a food system dominated by a few multinational corporations.