'Terminator' seed sowing discord

CBC News | June 1, 2007

The federal NDP has taken a stand against "terminator technology," the nascent gene-changing process used to render seeds sterile.

Agriculture critic Alex Atamanenko introduced a private member's bill Thursday to ban field-testing and commercialization of terminator seed, following the lead of the governments of India and Brazil.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Chuck Strahl said he would not support the bill because the science has not been fully studied and Canada wants to wait to see if international rules develop.

At the moment, there is a de facto UN ban which Canada supports, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency website says.

"This technology is currently still at the research stage in laboratories — there have been no confined research field trials or commercial applications from developers to date in Canada."

Critics of the technology fear that it will make farmers dependent on companies that sell seeds, which farmers will have to buy every year. That is of particular concern in poorer countries, where farmers traditionally use some of this year's crop as seed for next year.

There is also an issue with the technology, which is based on a complicated five-gene construct. It is "inevitable" it will fail and could harm biodiversity, said Lucy Sharratt, co-ordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, which backs the ban.

CFIA argues exactly the opposite, saying "the terminator approach provides an excellent method to protect against transference of novel traits to other crops and plant species."

Some farmers like the idea of terminator seed, and are familiar with the concept. Hybrid seed, used to grow corn, is sterile but widely used because farmers like the yield and other benefits.

But Sharratt said if terminator seed use is allowed, companies could introduce the seeds widely, so farmers would have no choice.

The CFIA website said terminator seed works when an activating gene introduced into plants triggers a toxin gene. The activator is controlled by a "promoter" that only works in germination.

"In this way, seed is formed by these plants and can be used as a commodity, but this seed will not survive germination due to the activation of the toxin gene."

The CFIA is in the midst of consultations about changing seed regulations. "Nothing in this proposal will change the approach used by the CFIA to regulate plants incorporating genetic use restriction technologies, or GURTs, which are sometimes referred to as 'terminator technologies,'" it said.

"This initiative does not affect farmers’ ability to save and reuse seed."