Sterile seed technology has been developed to prevent the growth of seeds that are produced by a crop. Despite rumors and false reports indicating otherwise, none of Monsanto's (NYSE:MON) commercialized seeds have ever been "Terminator" seeds. Whether it is a matter of good morals or good business, Monsanto has joined other giants in the seed industry including Syngenta (NYSE:SYT) and DuPont (NYSE:DD) in their commitment to not commercialize sterile seed technology in any of their food crops. Two questions remain, though: Can the public trust Monsanto to stand by its commitment, and if they cannot, is there a true need to worry about the technology behind terminator seeds?
If they wanted to...
"Genetic Use Restriction Technology," or GURT, is the original name given to the broader technology that is best known for its subset of "Terminator" qualities. U.S. patents for GURTs were awarded to the massive cotton seed company Delta & Pine Land (DPL) that has since been acquired by Monsanto. Through the acquisition, Monsanto not only established itself as the clearly dominant supplier of traited cottonseed in the United States, but it also acquired the DPL intellectual property that would give the company the capacity to apply terminator technologies to food crop seeds as well as cotton seeds.
Prior to the acquisition, however, Monsanto made a commitment to not utilize sterile seed technology on food crops, and the company stands "firmly by this commitment, with no plans or research that would violate this commitment." Though the technology exists and, if properly utilized could very feasibly remediate patent infringement issues that arise from seed-saving farmers, the company apparently has no intent to apply Terminator technology to food crops. Monsanto's willingness to forego a controversial technology from which it could undoubtedly profit is a pleasant departure from the behavior that's expected from a company with a questionable reputation. Even with honest intentions, Monsanto's dubious reputation likely contributes to the rumors that GMO (genetically modified organism) food crops yield sterile seeds.
Two sides to the story
Opponents of Terminator seeds are concerned that food-poor regions of the world will be exposed to food crops that yield sterile seeds. They fear that either the expense of the seed and the inability to grow saved seeds will result in starvation in that region, or the trait will be passed on to non-GMO seeds and potentially cause all food seeds in the region to become sterile.
On the other side of the argument, proponents of the technology argue that utilizing Terminator technology would help to prevent the unwanted spread of GMO crops. The basis of this argument is that if accidental cross-pollination occurs between GMO and non-GMO plants, the resulting offspring would yield seeds that are sterile after the first generation. This would in turn end the contamination cycle.
A promise of compromise?
Nobody expects the anti-GMO community to reach a reasonable compromise with Monsanto, Syngenta, and Dupont, but other GURTs may provide a sensible bridge between the conflicting parties. GURT research expands beyond just producing seeds with sterile offspring; it has enabled researchers to essentially turn on and turn off traits in seeds such as insect resistance and possibly even Round-Up resistance in harvested seeds. Applying such technologies to crop seeds would support the IP protection sought by large seed companies while also remediating fears over sterile seeds in food poor regions of the world. Basically, farmers could plant GMO seeds and take advantage of whatever enhanced traits were purchased for the season. They could save seeds for the following season if desired, knowing that the patented trait would not be active in the second generation.
Globally, opposition to Terminator technologies has been widespread, including a recommendation by the United Nations Conference on Biological Diversity (CBD) to not approve field testing until appropriate scientific data can justify such testing. The recommendation also advised against allowing commercial use of GURTs until "authorized and strictly controlled scientific assessments with regard to, inter alia, their ecological and socio-economic impacts and any adverse effects for biological diversity, food security, and human health have been carried out in a transparent manner." At the same time, the CBD invited researchers to study the IP impacts of GURTs, thus "recognizing the need to better understand the intellectual-property-rights implications of genetic use restriction technologies." In general, opposition to Terminator technologies worldwide is much more pronounced than opposition to the other potential uses for Genetic Use Restriction Technologies.
More GURT research is needed, and the research should be conducted in a non-biased and transparent manner. If or when the technology has been accepted as safe for widespread use, one would hope that GURTs could expand the realm of seed technology and offer another tool in the worldwide effort to feed a growing population during a time of troubling climate change. Unfortunately for Monsanto and other giants in the seed industry, no amount of research, regardless of who conducts the research and how supportive it may be of GMO-related technologies, will ever be able to fully convince anti-GMO activists that genetic modification of any sorts by these seed companies is safe or acceptable.