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Canada helps weaken 'Terminator' seed policy

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February 21, 2006

Canada helps weaken 'Terminator' seed policy

by Anna Carastathis

On January 27, at a meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Granada, Spain, the international community agreed to allow experimentation with Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT), also known as "Terminator" technology. "GURT" is an umbrella term referring to genetic enhancement technology that produces plant varieties with sterile seeds at harvest. There are two classes of GURT:

1. V-GURT, which are sterile seeds. This technology would oblige farmers to buy seeds from their manufacturer on an annual basis.
2. T-GURT, which are crops modified in such a way that they must be treated with a chemical that is sold by the biotechnology company, in order for them to grow. Farmers can save seeds for use each year, but must buy and use the activator compound annually.

Canada, together with Australia and New Zealand, successfully pushed for the change in international GURT policy. Canada previously attempted to convince the CBD to permit the use of GURTs in February 2005, but failed, partly as the result of a leaked document which mobilized international opposition from civil society.

While the move doesn't lift the current ban on commercial use of Terminator seeds, opponents of Terminator technology see allowing experimentation as a step in that direction. According to a press release jointly written by the Ban Terminator Campaign and the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC group), "Not only did the meeting fail to condemn Terminator as immoral and anti-farmer, Australia and the United States falsely claimed that Terminator, which creates sterility, would 'increase productivity.'"

Even under experimental conditions, GURT plant varieties could pass on sterility -- the "Terminator" or "suicide" trait -- to wild plants, or to non-GURT cultivated plants. Tests will take place in large-scale, outdoor agro-laboratories, meaning that surrounding ecosystems will be at risk of contamination.

Used commercially, critics argue that GURTs will imperil the global seed supply, contribute to the homogenization of the food supply, and threaten biodiversity in natural ecosystems. Indigenous peoples' rights to food sovereignty and self-determination are also threatened by GURTs, since socio-economic and cultural welfare is inextricably linked to environmental security. More specifically, as stated in a 2003 study performed by an Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (AHTEG) assembled by the UN, negative impacts of Terminator technology include: the decimation of local, small-scale, and indigenous farming practices, systems and knowledge, together with their socio-cultural dimensions; seed dependency, crop failure, loss of agro-biodiversity; unpredictable, uncontrollable, irreversible changes in the environment and the devastation of ecosystems.

According to close observers like the ETC group, the Canadian government is bowing to pressure from the powerful biotechnology and agribusiness lobby, which sees GURTs as a way to extract unprecedented profits by completely privatizing plant varieties on which the majority of the world's population depends for survival.

According to ecofeminist biologist Dr. Vandana Shiva, "Termination of germination is a means for capital accumulation and market expansion…abundance in nature and for farmers shrinks as markets grow for Monsanto [a biotechnology corporation notorious for patenting seeds used in the majority world, and the innovator of Terminator technology]…There can be no partnership between a logic of death on which Monsanto bases its expanding empire and the logic of life on which women farmers in the Third World base their partnership with the earth to provide food security to their families and communities."

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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