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R E E D, Ky., Aug. 2 This is how it has worked for centuries: farmers harvest a crop and hold back some of the seeds to plant next years crop.
In natures cycle, one harvest creates the next. But science has come up with a method to stop that cycle and to make crops sterile. It is the result of genetic engineering. Researchers have found a way to implant a kind of genetic switch in crops that can terminate their ability to reproduce. Its critics have dubbed it terminator technology and they are appalled by it. Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists calls it, a technology that doesnt improve yields, doesnt increase the nutritional value of food, but does only one thing. And that is it sterilizes the plants. It produces dead seed.
But big agribusiness companies are very interested in it. We believe this technology has the potential for agricultural biotechnology in terms of gene control devices in plants, says Jack Watson of Monsanto.
Companies such as Monsanto want that control. They argue they spend millions on research, creating genetically altered crops and that their profits come from selling farmers the seed. To protect those profits, Monsanto now patents much of that seed, actually making it illegal for farmers to save and reuse it. When farmer David Chaney did just that, Monsanto sent a private detective to his farm. Monsanto sued him and dozens of other farmers. They also bought radio time to warn others that offenders stand to lose hundreds of dollars per acre.
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Its not a subject they like to discuss, but when pressed, Eileen Kennedy of the USDA admitted We were part of the research group developing that. Absolutely.
The primary reason: to help companies protect their bottom line. Recoup a part of their investment that private sector R&D [research and development] money is going into the development of that seed, says Kennedy.
Monsanto has promised to call for public debate on the merits of the technology. And until that takes place in the public realm and until we have an opportunity to analyze those impacts, we will not commercialize the technology, says Watson.
What will the federal government stand to gain? Well, consider: By contract, if the genetically altered seed goes commercial, agriculture officials could make a lot of money. Twenty-five percent of those royalties would go to the individual investigators, says Kennedy. To USDA scientists.
To some, the promise of opportunity. To others, a threat that could, at the very least, irrevocably alter life on the farm.
S U M M A R Y|
For some, the creation of sterile seeds offers the promise of opportunity. To others, it is a threat to livelihood.