For centuries now, farmers have been practicing agriculture by saving seeds from the harvest and using it for next year’s crop. Call it a form of insurance. Call it security. They may even exchange seeds with neighboring farms. This is their security blanket to keep poverty at bay as well as ensure crop genetic diversity.

However, with the myriad of seed patents being granted to the handful of agricultural giants controlling the world, farmers worldwide are being threatened. So is biodiversity.
By exchanging seeds, farmers ensure that different kinds of plants and plant species are cultivated and retain their intrinsic properties.

The slew of patents granted for Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT: colloquially known as “terminator technology”) spell the end of traditional methods of farming as we know it as well as for biodiversity. Terminator technology forces farmers to buy a fresh stock of seeds every year by genetically switching off seed germination upon triggering by a chemical. This means that the plant produces sterile seeds incapable of germination. This prevents farmers from saving seeds and re-planting them and instead forcing them to buy new seeds.

GURT was developed under a research and development agreement between Agricultural Research Service of the USDA and Delta and Pine Land Company (Information obtained from International Seed Federation). The Convention on BioDiversity further distinguishes between:

  • V-Gurt technology controls reproductive processes resulting in seed sterility, thus affecting the viability of the entire variety.
  • T-Gurt technology aims to control traits of plants such as insect or disease resistance or production of nutrients.

GURTs are typically used to restrict species for which hybrid technologies may not be well researched or developed. They may also be used to restrict inbreeding of crops and vegetatively multiplied crops.

It is not to say that GURTs have no advantages. Indeed, such a one-sided view would be unbecoming of a lawyer. They enable a producer to restrict trait expression especially during an onslaught of diseases which affect crops or farm animals. However, the potential impact on biodiversity is a lot more dire and outweighs the advantages.

In traditional farming systems, farmers breed and improve the quality of local seeds season after season. This method is dynamic enough that new genes kick in to maintain the fitness of the local flora. Employing GURTs would reduce or eventually completely displace the locally adapted genetic material. This would affect the local agricultural biodiversity.

Further, with V-GURT sterility kicking in in the second generation, if we factor in cross-pollination, then we have the added possibility of sterile seeds being spread in the neighboring fields/areas. This could perhaps reduce the yield over the coming years till the area collapses into a yieldless heap.

The most important repercussion if GURTs become commercially viable would be in terms of market power. The few companies that own the patents in GURTs would set non-competitive market prices. Seed supply would become a potential problem. Traditional methods of farming like seed-saving would not be allowed anymore and farmers would lose their security blanket of being able to save seeds for next season. In the event that some disaster befalls the company providing seeds, the farmer would be left high-and-dry.

According to one of the information papers submitted by the COP (Conference of Parties) to the CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity), patents in GURT may violate Art. 27.2 of TRIPS agreement which states:

Members may exclude from patentability inventions, the prevention within their territory of the commercial exploitation of which is necessary to protect ordre public or morality, including to protect human, animal or plant life or health or to avoid serious prejudice to the environment, provided that such exclusion is not made merely because the exploitation is prohibited by their law.

If there is enough scientific evidence that GURT causes irreparable damage to the environment then merely rescinding the patents granted in this field is not sufficient. There has to be some other method of damage control and preventing commercialization.

Just for curiosity, I was browsing the USPTO to check who controls most of the patents in GURT and here is what I found. (Information from ETC group as of Jan 2005)

Syngenta US6700039 2March2004
Syngenta–application US20030154509A1 Filed:14August2003
Syngenta–application US20010022004A1 Filed:21March2001
Syngenta US6362394 26March2002
Syngenta(Zeneca) US6228643 8May2001
Syngenta(Novartis) US6147282 14Nov.2000
Syngenta(Novartis) US5880333 9March1999
Syngenta(Zeneca) US5808034 15Sept1998
Syngenta(Zeneca) WO9738106A 16Oct.1997
Syngenta(Zeneca) WO9735983A2 2Oct.1997
Syngenta(Zeneca) WO9403619A2andA3 17Feb1994
Delta&PineLand/USDA US5723765 3March1998
Delta&PineLand/USDA US5925808 20July1999
Delta&PineLand/USDA US5977441 2Nov.1999
BASF(ExSeedGeneticsISU) WO9907211 18Feb.1999
DuPont(Pioneer) US 2Oct2001
DuPont(Pioneer) US5859341 12Jan1999
Monsanto WO9744465 27Nov1997
PurdueResearchFoundation WO9911807 11March1999
CornellResearchFoundation US5859328 12Jan1999

Today’s post is by Guest Barista Shalini Menezes of D:ic.t:um.

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  2. […] Seed patents and biodiversity (Patent Baristas) […]

  3. Speaking of inbreeding, here is how to compute it:

  4. Just 3 quick remarks:
    a) hybrid seeds (not allowing saving and breeding of a second generation) already seem to dominate the “traditional” seed business (;
    b) nobody is forced to buy a patented article;
    c) no patent gives a right to commercialise the invention (but only to exclude commercialisation by a third parties).