What is Terminator technology?

cartoon of man reaching for food bowl

Terminator technology is the genetic modification of plants to make them produce sterile seeds. They are also known as suicide seeds. Terminator's official name - used by the UN and scientists - is Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs).  Although Terminator seeds are not yet being sold, in 2007 biotech companies with the support of the US Department for Agriculture were conducting greenhouse tests for future commercialisation.

Good for biotech companies, bad for farmers

Terminator spells trouble for peasant farmers throughout the developing world because they would no longer be able to save seeds to re-use from one harvest to the next. Many poor farmers cannot afford to buy seeds each year. Instead, they save, swap and share seeds that have been developed over generations. If farmers have no choice but to buy new seeds every year, the companies are guaranteed large profits at the expense of poor farmers' food security.

Why is it being developed?

The biotech companies argue that Terminator technology will prevent the contamination of non-GM crops with GM-crops. They say that if all GM varieties had the terminator trait they would not be able to spread into the environment, and so biosafety would be ensured.

However, like any other GM genes, Terminator genes could spread to other crops by cross-fertilisation and by accidental mixing. So the GM Terminator genes would themselves contaminate non GM-crops, meaning that these non-GM crops would produce sterile seeds and would no longer be GM-free.

Terminator spells the end of seed diversity

Farmers in the developing world have been breeding plants for generations and in doing so, have been responsible for developing thousands of varieties that thrive in local soils and climates. Terminator technology could spell the end of locally adapted agriculture. It would diminish the range of local and native seeds that are fundamental to local food systems.

In the face of climate change, conserving plants adapted to local conditions becomes crucial.  Nobody knows in advance which crops or varieties are capable of surviving heat waves, floods, droughts and pest invasions - so it has never been more important for farmers to cultivate a well chosen diversity of traditional crops.

Corporate control over seeds

Having fewer and fewer companies in charge of the global seed supply has serious implications for global food security. In 2006, the world's top four seed companies - Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Group Limagrain - accounted for half of the global seed market. Seeds are the first and essential element of the food chain: without seeds, there is no agriculture and therefore there is no food.

In 1994, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) made it compulsory for both developed and developing countries to provide some sort of monopoly rights on seeds. No serious consideration has been given to the impact that such protection can have on food security in poor countries. The seed corporations realised that the enforcement of intellectual property rights on seeds was costly and difficult. Having a self-enforcing biological way to do this would be a much more effective way for seed corporations to protect and gain from their intellectual property. This is the aim of Terminator technology. 

From Terminator to zombie

The need to uphold the ban on Terminator becomes even more urgent as biotech companies are trying to develop a new type of terminator seeds - dubbed 'zombie' seeds by environmentalists. Zombie crops would be engineered to produce sterile seeds that could be brought back to life with the right treatment - probably a chemical sold by the seed companies. Zombie seeds would force farmers not only to pay for new seeds but for chemicals to make the seeds they save viable. This would create a new perpetual monopoly for the seed industry.

Hope is not yet lost

In recognition of the serious threat to the food security and livelihoods of poor farmers in developing countries, the UN's Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) established a ban on the field test and commercialisation of Terminator technology until studies show that it doesn't pose any harm to the lives of farmers or the environment.

During 2005 Progressio worked with other organisations for the ban to be upheld at the March 2006 CBD meeting. Thanks to the strong support of the British public, over 250 MPs from all parties signed an Early Day Motion 1300 asking the UK Government to support the ban. This, together with the actions taken by many others around the world, was fundamental in reinforcing the international ban on Terminator technology.

But the ban did not stop biotech companies from pressing ahead with Terminator. That’s why Progressio campaigned for the ban on Terminator technology to be upheld at the May 2008 CBD meeting in Berlin.


Image taken from Say No to Terminator Seeds leaflet. Image © Polyp