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Context of 'Summer 1997: Monsanto Employee Tries to Blow Whistle on Company for Feeding Experimental GM Cotton to Cattle'

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A number of agricultural biotech firms secure patents on genetic use restriction technologies (GURTs). GURT, more commonly known as “terminator” technology, involves genetically engineering seeds to grow into sterile plants. The motivation behind this technology is to provide a means for seed companies to protect their intellectual property rights. By making their seeds genetically sterile, seed companies can prevent farmers from saving and replanting proprietary seeds, thus forcing farmers to purchase new seeds every year. Critics say that biotech companies intend to use the technology to force their seeds on Third World farmers, most of whom engage in subsistence-level farming and plant only common seed. The seed industry sees these farmers as a huge untapped market. Seed savers number an estimated 1.4 billion farmers worldwide—100 million in Latin America, 300 million in Africa, and 1 billion in Asia—and are responsible for growing between 15 and 20 percent of the world’s food supply. (USPTO Patent Database 3/3/1998; Rural Advancement Foundation International 3/30/1998; Steinbrecher and Mooney 9/1998) In addition to GURT, companies are seeking to develop a similar technology, called T-GURT or genetic trait control. This technology would make plant growth or the expression of certain genes contingent on whether or not the seed or plant is exposed to certain chemicals. For example, AstraZeneca is developing a technology to produce crops that would fail to grow properly if they are not regularly exposed to the company’s chemicals. The Canadian-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) suggests that T-GURT could serve as a platform upon which certain proprietary traits could be placed. In order to turn positive traits (e.g., herbicide-resistance) on, or negative traits (e.g., sterility) off, the farmer would need to either apply proprietary chemicals to the crops as they grow or pay to have the seeds soaked in a catalyst solution prior to planting. Critics note that this technology, like terminator technology, would require that farmers pay every year to have functioning seeds. Farmers would, in effect, be leasing the seed. Companies developing GURT and T-GURT seeds include Novartis, AstraZeneca, Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Rhone Poulenc, and DuPont. (Rural Advancement Foundation International 1/27/1999; Rural Advancement Foundation International 1/30/1999; Rural Advancement Foundation International 1/30/1999)
Critics Say: -
bullet Terminator seeds would either turn poor farmers into “bioserfs,” by requiring them to pay for their seed every year, or drive these farmers out of farming all together. Proponents counter that farmers would not be forced to buy the seed. (Rural Advancement Foundation International 3/30/1998)
bullet If biotech seed companies were to penetrate the markets of non-industrialized countries, their seeds would replace thousands of locally grown and adapted varieties resulting in a significant loss of the world’s agricultural biodiversity. (Rural Advancement Foundation International 3/30/1998)
bullet The use of terminator technology would allow the seed industry to expand into new sectors of the seed market, like those for self-pollinating crops such as wheat, rice, cotton, soybeans, oats and sorghum, according to the Canadian-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). “Historically there has been little commercial interest in non-hybridized seeds such as wheat and rice because there was no way for seed companies to control reproduction. With the patent announcement, the world’s two most critical food crops—rice and wheat—staple crops for three-quarters of the world’s poor, potentially enter the realm of private monopoly.” The organization notes that according to FAO, wheat, the world’s most widely cultivated crop, was grown on 219 million hectares in 1995. Rice, which was cultivated on 149 million hectares that year, produced the most crop by weight at 542 million tons. (Rural Advancement Foundation International 3/30/1998)
bullet Critics warn that terminator technology would threaten the farmers’ expertise in seed selection and traditional plant breeding. (India 12/2/1998)
bullet Some scientists have warned that introducing terminator genes into the germplasm could result in the development of a virus that could disable all non-terminator seeds. “This is perfectly possible,” according to Dr. Owain Williams, of the Gaia Foundation. “Already bacteria have been developed for fixing nitrogen into corn roots, so why not a killer bacteria?” (Brittenden 3/22/1998)
bullet Terminator technology is also likened to piracy. Anuradha Mittal and Peter Rosset of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy, write: “Patenting genes the same way you patent software robs Third World farmers. While they and their ancestors developed almost all important food crops, transnational corporations can now blithely patent those crops and make mega profits without in any way compensating traditional farm communities for the original research. Genetic resources taken freely from southern countries will be returned to them later as pricey patented commodities. ‘Terminator’ technology is a way of locking this ‘bio-piracy’ into the very genes themselves.” (Mittal and Rosset 3/1/1999)
Proponents Say: -
bullet Supporters of the technology say that farmers will not be required to buy the seed and therefore will not purchase it unless they perceive some benefit from using it. Critics say that this scenario is not realistic. In a market dominated by an ever diminishing number of seed companies, selection will be limited. RAFI notes: “Current trends in seed industry consolidation, coupled with rapid declines in public sector breeding, mean that farmers are increasingly vulnerable and have far fewer options in the marketplace.” (Rural Advancement Foundation International 3/30/1998)
bullet Some proponents argue that terminator seeds would be no different than F1 hybrids, which produce lower quality seeds than their parents. (Hawkes 11/4/1998)
bullet Advocates say that terminator technology will allow the industry to safely release genetically modified plants into the environment, without the risk of contaminating related crops or wild plants. (Page 2/26/2005) Critics say that alleged benefit is outweighed by the danger terminator seeds pose to food safety, farmers’ rights, and agricultural biodiversity. (Rural Advancement Foundation International 3/30/1998)

Kirk Azevedo lands a job with the Monsanto Company. Young and idealistic, he is later described by author Jeffrey Smith as the “perfect candidate to project the company’s ‘Save the world through genetic engineering’ image.” He is fascinated with the company’s CEO, Robert Shapiro, who talks about genetically modified organisms being used to “reduce the in-process waste from manufacturing, turn our fields into factories and produce anything from lifesaving drugs to insect-resistant plants,” Azevedo later recalls. But three months after taking the job, after a meeting at the company’s headquarters in St. Louis, a vice president tells him, “What [CEO] Robert Shapiro says is one thing. But what we do is something else. We are here to make money. He is the front man who tells a story. We don’t even understand what he is saying.” (Smith 6/2006)

According to Kirk Azevedo, Monsanto’s facilitator for genetically modified cotton sales in California and Arizona, he learns from a Monsanto scientist that the company’s GM Roundup Ready cotton not only contains the intended protein produced by the Roundup Ready gene, but also contains additional proteins that are not naturally produced in the plant. These unknown proteins were created during the gene insertion process, the scientist reportedly explained to Azevedo, when the modified genes were inserted into the plant’s DNA using a “gene gun.” Azevedo, who has been studying mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), becomes concerned that these abnormal proteins “might possibly lead to mad cow or some other prion-type diseases.” When he shares this concern with the scientist, he discovers that the scientist has no idea what he is talking about. “He had not even heard of prions. And this was at a time when Europe had a great concern about mad cow disease and it was just before the Nobel prize was won by Stanley Prusiner for his discovery of prion proteins,” Azevedo later recalls. (Smith 6/2006) Azevedo will become even more concerned when he learns that Monsanto scientists are feeding experimental GM cotton plants to cattle (see Summer 1997).

Kirk Azevedo, Monsanto’s facilitator for genetically modified cotton sales in California and Arizona, will later say that around this time he discovered that Monsanto is feeding GM cotton plants from test fields to cattle. “I had great issue with this. I had worked for Abbot Laboratories doing research, doing test plots using Bt sprays from bacteria. We would never take a test plot and put [it] into the food supply, even with somewhat benign chemistries. We would always destroy the test plot material and not let anything into the food supply.” When he explains to the Ph.D. in charge of the test plot that feeding experimental plants containing unknown proteins (see 1996) to cows is a potential health risk to humans, the scientist refuses to end the practice. “Well that’s what we’re doing everywhere else and that’s what we’re doing here,” Azevedo recalls the scientist saying. Azevedo then raises his concerns with other employees in Monsanto. “I approached pretty much everyone on my team in Monsanto” but no one seemed interested, and in fact, people started to ignore him. Next, he contacts California agriculture commissioners whose responsibility it is to ensure that the management and design of test plots do not pose any risks to public health. But, “once again, even at the Ag commissioner level, they were dealing with a new technology that was beyond their comprehension,” Azevedo later explains. “They did not really grasp what untoward effects might be created by the genetic engineering process itself.” He also tries unsuccessfully to speak with people at the University of California. Frustrated with the company and the government’s apparent lack of concern, he quits his job at Monsanto in early January 1998. (Smith 6/2006)

Monsanto’s net sales for the year is $8.6 billion and its share of the genetically modified seed market is 88 percent. Trailing behind Monsanto are Novartis and DuPont. (Reynolds 10/8/1999)

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Delta & Pine Land Company jointly obtain US patent 5,723,765 for a technology that would be used to make sterile seeds (see 1994 and after). The seeds, dubbed “terminator” seeds by critics, would grow into plants that would produce seeds that when replanted would literally kill themselves by producing a toxic protein. Delta & Pine Land has exclusive licensing rights, while the USDA would earn about 5 percent of the net sales of any commercial product using the technology. The USDA and Pine Land Co. have also applied for patents in at least 78 other countries. Delta & Pine Land says in its press release that the technology has “the prospect of opening significant worldwide seed markets to the sale of transgenic technology for crops in which seed currently is saved and used in subsequent plantings.” (USPTO Patent Database 3/3/1998; Rural Advancement Foundation International 3/30/1998; Steinbrecher and Mooney 9/1998)

Willard Phelps of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) tells Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) that the goal of terminator technology is “to increase the value of proprietary seed owned by US seed companies and to open up new markets in Second and Third World countries.” Phelps says he wants terminator technology to be “widely licensed and made expeditiously available to many seed companies.” (Rural Advancement Foundation International 3/30/1998) The USDA shares a patent for terminator technology with Delta & Pine Land (see March 3, 1998).

Monsanto says it will purchase Delta & Pine Land Company, the company that shares a jointly-held patent on terminator technology with the US Department of Agriculture (see March 3, 1998). (Steinbrecher and Mooney 9/1998) The acquisition will be stalled by US anti-trust agencies, and in December 1999 Monsanto will drop its bid (see December 19, 1999).

Darwin Murrell of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) emails a memo informing the department’s scientists that any research into terminator technology must now be reviewed by senior managers. The USDA jointly holds a patent on the technology with Delta & Pine Land (see March 3, 1998). This is a “sensitive issue,” Murrell says. “Imposing an extra level of review for this research will not create undue delays nor will it restrict the creative talents of our scientists, but it will help them avoid potential political and legal pitfalls.” (Edwards 10/10/1998)

The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a Canadian-based organization that advocates on behalf of poor farmers, discovers that seed companies have collectively obtained 29 patents on technologies that would be used to create seeds whose growth could be restricted. Companies are interested in the technology because they can protect their intellectual property rights by preventing unauthorized—i.e., unpaid for—use of the seed. The first known patent for this type of technology was for the “terminator” seed, developed jointly by Delta & Pine Land Company and the US Department of Agriculture (see March 3, 1998). The technology has been condemned worldwide by a number of governments, scientists, and organizations concerned with food security, farmers’ rights, and biodiversity. The revelation that so many companies still want to develop and use this technology—despite such widespread condemnation—leads Pat Mooney of RAFI to say that seed sterility technology is the “Holy Grail” of the biotech industry. “The notorious terminator patent is just the tip of the iceberg,” explains Mooney, “Every major seed and agrochemical enterprise is developing its own version of suicide seeds,” he adds. (Rural Advancement Foundation International 1/27/1999; Rural Advancement Foundation International 1/30/1999; Rural Advancement Foundation International 1/30/1999)

The Scientific Body of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (SBSTTA) rejects proposals during a meeting in Montreal to recommend a permanent moratorium on genetic use restriction technologies (GURT). GURTs are those which use genetic engineering to restrict the growth of plants in order to protect the intellectual property rights of the seed developer. The most well-known restriction technology is “terminator” technology (see 1994 and after). Another is “traitor” technology, so named because the traits of seeds and plants produced with this technology can be genetically controlled, e.g., a certain proprietary chemical may be required in order for certain genes to be expressed. The proposal to ban GURTs was made after a report by a blue-ribbon scientific panel was presented before the SBSTTA. The report had concluded that restriction technologies are a threat to agricultural biodiversity and national food security. The delegates at the meeting reportedly agreed that the study was broadly based and well done. After listening to the report, the government of Norway proposed that the SBSTTA recommend a moratorium on field trials and commercialization of the technology. India, Portugal, Kenya, Peru, and several other countries backed the proposal. The US opposed it, as did Canada—though only the US delegation attempted to defend the technology. One of the concerns expressed by supporters of the proposal was that terminator technology could be used to strong arm poorer countries into adopting or accepting certain trade policies. Countries like the US, it was suggested, could withhold seed or the chemicals needed to sustain the growth of chemically dependent plants as a sort of ransom. With the US and Canada opposed to Norway’s proposal, an alternative resolution was drafted by Britain (and then amended by Suriname). Though different than Norway’s, Britain’s proposal would have also recommended a ban on commercialization and field trials. But this was not considered agreeable either. Finally, a “contact group” was formed, which went into private discussion. The compromise that resulted from the closed-door meeting looked nothing like either of the original proposals. Under the provisions of the compromise resolution, governments would have the option of imposing a ban on field trials and commercialization. It failed to affirm the conclusions of the Blue Panel report, making no mention of GURT posing a direct threat to biodiversity or national sovereignty over genetic resources. “I don’t know what happened in that room,” Silvia Ribeiro of Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) says, “There were two reasonably strong resolutions when they went in and one very weak proposal when they came out. I think the South has been tricked.” The new proposal was then weakened even further by the efforts of Australia. Even an industry representative took a stab at weakening the proposal. “In the feeding frenzy, a representative from the seed industry became so excited that he took the floor, presumed the prerogative of a government, and proposed additional resolution text to restrict farmers’ rights to save, exchange, and sell farm-saved seed,” according to RAFI. The following day, during a plenary discussion, RAFI called attention to a little noticed provision that had been slipped into the draft by Australia as an amendment. RAFI noted that it would restrict countries’ rights to impose a moratorium on GURT by linking any moratorium to potential trade sanctions. “Shortly before the debate ended, the US delegation made an ugly and aggressive intervention that put the question to rest: The US bluntly threatened trade sanctions on countries that impose a moratorium and made clear that it was willing to use the WTO to force terminator down the world’s throat,” according to RAFI. (Rural Advancement Foundation International 6/25/1999; Convention on Biodiversity 6/27/1999, pp. 23-26 pdf file; Convention on Biodiversity 6/27/1999; Rural Advancement Foundation International 6/28/1999; Singh 7/8/1999)

The US Department of Agriculture and cotton seed producer Delta & Pine Land jointly acquire a new patent (US Patent No 5,925,808) for genetic seed sterilization, also known as terminator technology. The patent is for innovations related to its original patent for seed sterilization (see March 3, 1998) issued in March 1998. (USPTO Patent Database 7/20/1999)

The US Patent office issues its third patent (US Patent No 5,977,441) to the US Department of Agriculture and cotton seed producer Delta & Pine Land for genetic seed sterilization, commonly known as terminator technology. The patent is for innovations related to two earlier patents (see March 3, 1998) issued in March 1998 and July 1999 (see July 20, 1999). (USPTO Patent Database 11/2/1999)

Biotech giant Monsanto and drug maker Pharmacia & Upjohn Inc. agree to merge. Together the two companies have a combined market value of about $52 billion. (Barbosa 12/20/1999) Shortly after the merger announcement, Monsanto says it has decided to drop its bid (see May 11, 1998) for Delta & Pine Land, the cotton seed company that shares a patent (see March 3, 1998) with the Department of Agriculture for terminator technology. (Reuters 12/22/1999)

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Ethics Panel meets in Rome to consider the ethical implications of recent advances in biotechnology. The panel is made up of world-renowned agronomists and ethicists. The focus of their discussion is on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food and agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. Following the meeting, the panel prepares a report that includes a summary of its views and lists a number of recommendations. The overriding concern of the report, completed some time in 2001, is that there is an inherent conflict between the interests of the corporations developing the technology and the social issues that GMO defenders say the technology will address. The biotech industry’s primary concern is “to maximize profits,” not to address the needs of the world’s rural poor, the report says. The panel notes that the private sector receives more resources than the public sector for GMO research, and that in some cases, public resources are actually being diverted to support private sector priorities. Another problem, according to the panel, is that the adoption of GM crops could undermine farmers’ livelihoods. Noting the power and leverage enjoyed by industry, the panel’s report warns that seed companies “may gain too much control over the rights of local farmers” and create a dependency among the rural poor on imported seeds. This would especially be the case if the biotech industry were to move ahead with genetic use restriction technologies (GURT), more commonly known as terminator technology (see 1994 and after). “The Panel unanimously stated that the ‘terminator seeds’ are generally unethical, as it is deemed unacceptable to market seeds whose offspring a farmer cannot use again because the seeds do not germinate,” the report says. “GURTs are not inherent in genetic engineering. While corporations are entitled to make profits, farmers should not be forced to become dependent on the supplier for new seeds every planting season.” However the panel says it does believe there is potential for the ethical use of GURTs. According to the panel, “Where the concern is with possible outcrossing of crops, for example GMOs that could damage wild plant populations, GURTs might be justified. This may also apply elsewhere: when the primary concern is to prevent reproduction of farmed fish with wild populations, for example, then GURTs could be useful in protecting wild populations.” In conclusion, the panel stresses the need for independent, publicly-funded research on GMOs that is “directed to the needs and benefits of poor farmers, herders, foresters and fishers.” (Food and Agriculture Organization 2001 pdf file)

Monsanto announces that it will purchase Delta & Pine Land Company, the world’s largest cotton seed company, and the first company to obtain a patent on terminator technology (see March 3, 1998). Monsanto has had its sights on Delta & Pine Land for years. A previous plan to buy the company—announced in 1998 (see May 11, 1998)—fell through in December 1999 (see December 19, 1999). The acquisition means that Monsanto will control over 57 percent of the US cotton seed market. It will also deepen Monsanto’s reach into the developing world, where Delta & Pine Land has subsidiaries in 13 countries—including India, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, and Pakistan. According to the ETC Group, an outspoken critic of terminator technology, “the takeover means that Monsanto will command a dominant position in one of the world’s most important agricultural trade commodities and that millions of cotton farmers will be under increased pressure to accept genetically modified (GM) cottonseed.” (Monsanto 8/15/2006; ETC Group 8/16/2006)

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