The Truth About the Terminator

The Truth About Terminator Seeds. There aren’t any, not in any crop anywhere. Yet this myth/untruth/lie is perhaps the most frequently repeated by anti-GE activists.

Vandana Shiva might be the worst offender. Here she is promoting her new campaign Occupy the Seed

the minute seeds stop being the seeds of renewal and starts being the seeds of death- like the terminator technology, creating sterile seeds, patented technology that makes it illegal for farmers to save and exchange seed, we get scarcity, that is why a quarter million Indian farmers have committed suicide. We’ve got to save the seeds of life…the seeds of freedom.

This is the same lie about Terminator seeds she has been repeating for years.

Why? My guess is, it sounds scary. “The Terminator…” it sounds just so unnatural, and, well terminal. Combined with the political implications- heartless money men using science fiction-type technology to force thousands of poor farmers into debt slavery (Ill come back to the suicides claim), taking over the seed supply, controlling the world’s food production, threatening to wipe out humanity…. you can just hear the throaty Evil Laugh in the background. What’s not to like?

Shiva’s picture of the nasty capitalist mega-villains Monsanto screwing the bejeezus out of both the defenseless farmer AND Mother Gaia herself has proved very effective at garnishing opposition to genetic engineering which, don’t forget, has been hitherto effectively banned from Europe and much of Africa.

But Shiva is not anti-capitalist. What she is really doing is protecting vested interests which are themselves just as much capitalist as the biotech companies she fights. Here she is hand in hand with Billionaire New Age King of Woo Deepak Chopra. They are pals you see; they share the same commercial interests. As discussed before, the mega-billion multi-national global capitalist alternative “health” industry is one of the big backers of the anti-GE movement.

Queen of Poo meets King of Woo: Shiva and Chopra…together..

As opposed to the life proliferating activities of cow dung, GMO seeds are “terminator seeds designed to be sterile, in a deliberate creation of food scarcity for profits,” says Shiva, who has worked with and defended the rights of farmers to store seeds for three decades…

The technological science so highly prized in our civilization has another side.

“Yes, it has given us important tools,” Chopra acknowledges, before he goes on to enumerate the ugly side of “fragmented science,” such as global warming, ecological destruction, mechanized death, nuclear weapons, GMOs, and pesticides. “Together they are risking our extinction as a species,” he says. (

Water economist Dave Zetland debunks’ Shiva’s sham anti-capitalism and tendency to play loose with the facts here.

What are Terminator seeds exactly? The correct term is GURT or Gene Use Restricted Technology, and there is no doubt that one of the idea of developing them was to facilitate seed patents, to make money in other words, or recoup investment if you are slightly less anti-capitalistic. The technology developed by the USDA in conjunction with Delta and Pine Land company in the 1990s, who were awarded the patent in 2005; Delta & Pine were acquired by Monsanto in 2007. Due to concerns that this might lead to dependence by small farmers, Monsanto agreed not to use GURT, instead requiring farmers to sign declarations that they will not save and replant Monsanto’s seed.

In 2000, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity recommended a de facto moratorium on field-testing and commercial sale of terminator seeds, which was re-affirmed in 2006.

However, GURT could have been a very useful way to solve one of the other principle worries about genetic engineering, that of cross-pollination. Sterile seeds produce no pollen and could not therefore cross-pollinate other crops. (Activists like to use the word “contamination” to make it sound more scary, like “bio-hazard”.)
Instead, the possibility of illegally saving Monsanto’s seeds has lead to a number of lawsuits- which have become themselves another primary cause of opposition to GE in general. With GURT in place, this issue could not have arisen of course.

The most famous example is that of Percy Schmeiser, the Canadian canola farmer who was sued by Monsanto for having some of their seeds on his property. Schmeiser is held up as one of the heroes of the anti-GE, anti-capitalist movement- the quintessential little guy doing battle against the monolithic corporate power.

The facts paint a rather different story: although Schmeiser denies any wrong-doing, according to the court records, he must have used Roundup on his fields to find out which seeds were Monsanto’s Roundup Ready, and then saved and re-sown those seeds- which is the only explanation for the fact that he was found to have 90% of his field sown in Monsanto plants.

Schmeiser was pro-GE, he wanted the improved traits that the technology has produced, he wanted to grow GE RR (Roundup Ready) canola; but he didn’t want to pay the license fee. Anti-GE activists don’t seem to be aware that when they invoke Schmeiser, they may be making a political point about patents and licensing, but they are undermining their own case that GE is not useful or profitable to the farmer.

Concern about being sued by Monsanto should some of their non-GURT pollen blow into your organic field remains high on the list of people’s fears, but there does not seem to any documented case of legal action against farmers for accidental cross-pollination. Monsanto state:

It has never been, nor will it be, Monsanto policy to exercise its patent rights where trace amounts of patented seed or traits are present in farmer’s fields as a result of inadvertent means…

Since 1997, Monsanto has filed suit against farmers 145 times in the United States for intentional

infringement of Monsanto’s patents. When you consider that the company sells seed to more than 250,000 American farmers a year, it’s a tiny number.

In general, cross-pollination is only an issue for seed-savers, and those issues are just the same for non-GE growers as for those using GE seeds. Two organic farmers growing two different varieties of corn for example would have to take steps to avoid cross-pollination. This is usually worked out by farmers talking to each other and coming to mutual arrangements; liability is shared- it is your responsibility to take both prevent cross-pollination of your neighbors’ fields, as well as to protect your own.

Strategies for limiting risk of cross-pollination might include distance; barrier crops, including hedgerows; arranging different planting and therefore flowering times; it’s not rocket science as they say.

Some people are supportive of the technology but opposed to the “corporate control” through seed patenting; it should be remembered though that unlike music patents, seed patents expire- the first RoundupReady patents will expire in the next couple of years and the seed will be free for people to save. The problem with removing the right to own patents is, if corporations like Monsanto were not able to recoup their substantial investments, they would be unlikely to develop the improved traits in the first place, so no-one would benefit. There is certainly a discussion to have about this, but it seems impossible to have any rational debate about real issues around GE when the conversation is dominated by blatant falsehoods perpetrated by the likes of Shiva.

The idea that farmers are being prevented from exercising their traditional right to save seeds is false: farmers choose to buy seeds often from certified seed-savers because they get better results. Farm-saved seed may not be pure, it may not have the improved qualities that the breeder has created. Seed-saving is a specialized job to be done to a high standard; most farmers in developed nations do not save their own seed any more than they would make their own tractors. Seed-saving is fine for the home gardener- I save some vegetable seeds myself- but in developing countries, moving away from farm-saved seed for commercial crops is more likely to be an indicator of moving away from poverty.

Much modern seed is hybrid, having the advantage of hybrid vigor; saved seed from hybrids will not retain those improved qualities and have lower yield. As plant scientist Anastasia Bodnar points out, “That’s biology, and has nothing to do with corporate greed, patents, or genetic engineering.” Farmers are free to choose the non-improved seeds if they wish; but this will likely mean reduced productivity.

In addition, many crops already have sterile seeds, or no seeds at all- as in the case of the seedless watermelon– necessitating purchasing the seeds anew each year; yet these crops appear uncontroversial and are permitted under organic standards.

I buy my seeds (for my small home garden) mainly from a local small seed company. Are they cynically exploiting my lack of seed-saving skills and forcing me to be dependent on theirs for profit? Why run a seed company when your philosophy is that growers should save their own seed? In any case I may now have to reconsider whether to buy seed from them in future:

The proprietor campaigns against genetic engineering which she wants banned in all circumstances. In a brief Twitter exchange with her last week, I asked her why she was concerned about cross-pollination from GE crops, should they ever be grown here, when she presumably already has to deal with that possibility from other organic or conventional neighbours. I was astonished at her reply- she told me that she “did not mind about contamination from non-GE crops”- this means that either she does not care if her seed is “contaminated”- ie whether it is pure or not- or does not know how to protect her seed from cross-pollination anyway.

Vandana Shiva’s claims that Terminator is causing farmers suicides in India seems quite unsubstantiated. High interest rates combined with complete absence of any social security safety net seem much more likely, while there is suggestions that the Indian governments’ willingness to support families of suicides and cancel their debts are also a factor.

In contrast, there is independent evidence that farmers in India growing Bt cotton increased their yield by 24%, their profit by 50% and raised their living standards by 18%.

A 2008 study for the International Food Policy Research Institute
concluded that

We first show that there is no evidence in available data of a “resurgence” of farmer suicides in India in the last five years. Second, we find that Bt cotton technology has been very effective overall in India. However, the context in which Bt cotton was introduced has generated disappointing results in some particular districts and seasons. Third, our analysis clearly shows that Bt cotton is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for the occurrence of farmer suicides. In contrast, many other factors have likely played a prominent role. Nevertheless, in specific regions and years, where Bt cotton may have indirectly contributed to farmer indebtedness, leading to suicides, its failure was mainly the result of the context or environment in which it was planted.

The tragedy of suicide is far more complex than simply attributing it to the introduction of a new technology- especially when this technology is in many places clearly increasing farmers’ incomes.

Bodnar again outlines the real issues around farming in India:

Farmers all over the world are buying Bt seed of various species because it works. Bt decreases pest damage without increasing pesticide use. It isn’t a silver bullet, though. Bt only controls certain pests, and the specific varieties the trait is in may or may not be suited for the local environment. The best way to use traits like Bt are to integrate them carefully into an Integrated Farm Management Plan and to put the trait in locally adapted varieties.

To solve the existing farm problems in India – including eroded soil, misuse of fertilizers and pesticides, monocultures, and misuse of Bt – India needs farm extension and price regulation. The farmers surely remember how to grow millet, legumes, and oilseeds, but why would anyone choose to grow those if they could get a higher price for cotton?

In my experience, anti-GE activists in the west, many of them inexperienced in farming, believe that there is something perhaps purer or more “natural” if developing farmers remain on a subsistence level; they see an increase in their income as being a bad thing, taking them away from their close connection with the land and doing things locally for themselves. They do not seem to realize that if a farmer cannot enter the cash economy, they will not be able to have the money to send their children to school, or buy labour-saving devices like washing machines that we take for granted. I wonder how much of Vandana Shiva’s false claims against GE is underpinned by a paternalistic philosophy that we should Keep the Poor Poor.

6 thoughts on “The Truth About the Terminator

  1. Huge amount of content in this article and I want to learn more. Thank you for the work of producing it. It is so much needed. Both Chopra and Vandana need to respond. It’s time to settle the argument. This article goes a long way to exposing very important issues.

  2. I don’t buy the farmer suicide claims either, and know for a fact if it occurred, it could not have been due to Terminator technology, as it was never commercialized. I’m sure some of the early disappointment with Bt cotton varieties was due to poor adaptation of the first released lines, but farmers have increased their use of Bt, so they could not have been too disappointed. I wonder how many farmers were taken advantage of by unscrupulous profiteers selling unmodified cotton seed as Bt because the demand was so much greater than the supply? That would account for some of the early claims of failure to control insects.

  3. Here’s an English Barrister who goes under the name of BeautifulBurnout displaying amazing ignorance and violence:

    It’s the Monsanto “terminator seeds” that make me want to go and stab them with a pitchfork, Thaum. For millenia farmers have been retaining a portion of their crop as seed for the next crop. But if it’s Monsanto “terminator” seed, it won’t germinate, so you would have to buy fresh stocks from them every year. Fortunately there is a moritorium on their commercialisation at the moment, but I have no idea how long that will last, especially if there is a major food supply crises in the developing world…

    Monsanto – one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse…

    Make of it what you will. And thanks for your information SkeptEco

  4. I run an NGO and have been travelling to and from India since 1975. Farmers do commit suicide and numbers have increased over the past few years: there are many reasons and failed crops are just one of them. We don’t carry out much work in the agricultural sector, but I do know that the biggest complaint (and it does lead to suicide) is they buy Monsanto seeds, which are not resistant to local pests, so they have to buy Monsanto pesticide to keep them at bay. Once the crop is harvested they cannot use a percentage of their seeds for the next harvest, which means they have to buy more Monsanto seeds, pesticide etc. It is a vicious circle. Also there is no evidence that crop yields increase.

    This is a complicated issue. Monsanto is in it to make money, not for the wellbeing of the planet, farmer or the consumer. Once you are tied into them it is difficult to get away.

    As for Chopra and Shiva, to be honest it is a smokescreen. Activists on both sides will make claim and counter claim; at the end of the day you pays your money and takes your choice. I am against GMO, because I prefer diversity and want to strengthen the overall seed stock for generations to come, and I don’t believe GMO does that. (And please don’t play the population card, just watch one of Hans Rosling’s excellent presentations) I also want farmers to be able reuse their seed rather than be dependent on an external supplier because I believe that is healthier all round. I am sure others will disagree, but it is what I believe.

    1. Thank you David Crosweller. I have endeavored to get more information about BT cotton and rice. One thing that I found incredibly interesting is that lawmakers in India had to intervene and regulate the cost of cotton seed. This sounds like any other type of regulation related to preventing a monopoly from taking advantage of a captive market. I think this one detail speaks volumes about the circumstances of the farmers there.

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