Terminator 2: My Mission is to Protect You

In discussions about GE crops, one of the contentious topics that often comes up is the use of what has been effectively dubbed “Terminator” technology. These are crops that are engineered to produce sterile seeds that cannot be regrown. The use of this technology to force farmers to repurchase their seeds every year is often what causes the greatest objection from opponents of genetic engineering. But what is interesting is that like the films where this technology gets its nickname, it can also be used to protect seed-saving farmers.

“Terminator” technology, also referred to as “Suicide Seeds,” are marketing terms coined by GE opponents to reframe what is technically called Genetic Use Restriction Technology, or GURT. This technology can take several forms, the most widely discussed one was developed by scientists working at the USDA and the Delta and Land Pine company, which is now owned by Monsanto. It works by means of three engineered genes, that when brought together in one plant, they act in combination to halt the development of embryos in the seeds the plant produces. The result is a plant that produces food as normal, but does not produce fertile seeds.

For those that are interested in a full scientific explanation of the technology, you can read about it here. But in short, GURTs can be used by seed companies to protect their intellectual property by preventing farmers from saving and replanting their seeds, which has often led to several lawsuits, some high-profile. It has also been suggested that for some crops that do not get much attention from plant breeders, that it would provide an incentive for them to spend the time and money it takes to improve a crop, because they could guarantee being able to sell their seeds in the future.

The public reaction to GURTs has been to imagine that it will turn farmers into servants of the seed industry, completely dependent upon them for seed purchases year after year. It is assumed that no non-GURT seeds will be available, and that this technology will allow seed companies to tell farmers what to grow and at what price, tell people what to eat, and basically rule the world. Hyperbole aside, at the very least the worry is that it will make farmers unable to choose what to grow, or financially yoked to a large corporation. For small-scale farmers in developing countries, they worry that it will give those large companies the power to extract all the money they can, keeping them in an impoverished state.

The strong backlash against “Terminator” GURTs has likely contributed to Monsanto’s decision to pledge not to use GURTs in any of their seeds. They acquired the technology when they bought Delta and Land Pine in 2000, a cotton breeding company. Nevertheless, many people believe that GURTs are widespread in use, even Vandana Shiva seems to repeatedly indicate that she believes that Bt cotton seeds are sterile and cannot be regrown. (You would think that since preventing the use of GURTs in commercialized GE crops is regarded as a victory for GE opponents, that they would all be very conscious of its absence.)

How much of this opposition is based on legitimate fears, and how much does would it change seed buying/replanting practices on farms?

As I have said elsewhere, monopolistic control of food crops by a few companies does not sound very likely to me, since companies making GE crops are sprouting up around the world, and antitrust laws in this country and others. Not to mention that government agencies and nonprofit organizations are also working on GE crops for developed and developing countries alike. In the case of GE crops developed by companies, since they would have patents on their engineered traits, they would have the authority to require royalties for farmers to plant fields of those crops. Given that farmers today are not allowed to save GE soybeans and replant them without paying a fee to the seed company, the only difference in this situation with a GURT is that the control would be biological rather than legal.

Would it force farmers to buy seeds every year? The fact is, many farmers already rebuy seed every year. In the case of hybrid crops that have higher yields than open-pollinated varieties, the hybrid must be regenerated each year from two inbred parents (which are typically proprietary). The debate over seed saving was hashed out in the debates over hybrid corn in the 1900s, and the result is that the vast majority of corn grown are hybrids. The increase in yield and other beneficial traits outweighs the continual cost of buying the seed.

Indeed, as Raoul Adamchak explains in Tomorrow’s Table, even organic farmers often purchase new seeds every year. Whether it is an heirloom Brandywine tomato or a hybrid sweet corn, seeds bought from a company that specializes in seed production (and/or breeding) are often a good bet against a bad batch of seed. From page 133:

At reasonable prices it is easier to let the seed companies provide the seed. In addition, they generally do a better job of maintaining seed purity and quality. If hybrid prices get too high, growers can switch to [Open-Pollinated varieties] instead, and save seeds. This can be a difficult choice is a specific trait like disease resistance, size, or uniformity is needed. Yields may also be less.

Even if seed saving is possible to do, it is still economically preferrable to go with seed provided by professional seed-producing operations, aside from issues of variety and transgene patents. If the price of seed gets too high, whether genetically engineered or not, farmers will go back to other varieties that are better for their bottom line. The economics of the situation will drive farmers one direction or another. I’m no economist, but it seems that the economics of competition in the seed market will ensure that there are alternatives available, irrespective of the presence or absence of GURTs.

“Terminator’s” you Eat

Afternoon_DelightThere is a very widely used and accepted conventional analog of Terminator GURTs that most of us have eaten – they’re called Seedless Watermelons. These are generated by manipulating the number of chromosomes in watermelon cells to give them three copies of each chromosome instead of two. (For more on how this works, you can watch a video I made about it here.) The resulting “Triploid” Watermelons sponteneously abort their seeds, leaving a juicy, seedless fruit. The seeds have to be regenerated year after year from other plants, and farmers and consumers obviously cannot replant seeds that don’t even exist!

Ironically, while genetic engineering is not allowed in organic agriculture, Seedless watermelons are. Nevermind the fact that the chromosome numbers are artificially manipulated using chemicals – it appears that this early form of direct genetic manipulation has been grandfathered in.

My point in bringing up the seedless watermelon is this: It results in exactly the same thing as genetically engineered GURTs – and that is it effectively prevents the plant from generating fertile seeds. bananaThe argument is often made, most vociferously by Shiva, that GURTs are immoral because they interrupt the traditional practice of seed saving. Shiva and others must therefore agree that seedless watermelons are also immoral for the same reason. Why is there no call for a moratorium on seedless watermelons? Well, that would be the pits. 🙂

Anyone wonder where the seeds are in bananas? There’s another one for you. The bananas we eat are also triploid, and produce no seeds. Although you can grow new banana trees from cuttings, it doesn’t produce any seeds that you could plant. Is the cavendish banana immoral, too?

Neither of these were made with genetic engineering, which means that unless Shiva hasn’t heard of Bananas and Seedless Watermelons, that the objection is not based on its effects on seed saving but on something else.

Can you think of any more examples?

Spread of Sterility?

In the global discussion of GURTs, there is a widespread perception that the “Terminator” will get out and run rampant, killing off not only every native crop but also spreading into other species and wiping them out. This about this for a second, is it possible for sterility to spread?

Not by any genetic mechanism I am familiar with. The pollen grains from GURT crops that cross-pollinate with others will make a few sterile seeds that will not grow and so their genes will not make it to the next generation. So if you grew corn next to another farmer who grew corn with a GURT in it, some of the seeds from the edge of your field could have been pollenated by a few stray grains from your neighbor’s field. If you were growing an open-pollinated variety and saved seed from year to year, you would have a few seeds that wouldn’t grow – but only if you gathered them from the margins of your field (which is not a good idea anyway).

And as for GURTs spreading into other species sterilizing them – these claims are based on a basic misunderstanding of how evolution works. Genes spread when they provide a benefit to the organism, and sterility is the exact opposite of an advantage. Aside from the small increases that can be seen from genetic drift – a trait needs to help the plant survive and reproduce to sweep through a population, and sexual sterility by definition does not do that.

But take a look at what Vandana Shiva said on pages 82-83 of her book, Stolen Harvest:

Molecular biologists are currently examining the risk of the terminator function escaping the genome of the crops into which it has been intentionally incorporated and moving into surrounding open-pollinated crops or wild, related plants in nearby fields. Given nature’s incredible adaptability and the fact that the technology has never been tested on a large scale, the possibility that the terminator may spread to surrounding food crops or to the natural environment is a serious one. The gradual spread of sterility in seeding plants would result in a global catastrophe that could eventually wipe out higher life forms, including humans, from the planet.

It is ironic that Shiva often argues that genetic engineering and the “Terminator” violate evolution, when it is evolution that proves that her claims are unfounded.

It is possible that one of the three genes in the Delta and Pine-style GURT could mutate and not function anymore – so this style of GURT is not 100.00% fool-proof. However even in that case the remaining two functional genes would not spread sterility because you would need all three genes to bring about sterility. Still no scientific justification for Shiva’s declaration about ‘spreading sterility,’ however it is possible that a few transgenes of the other traits in the crop could still leak out on rare occasions.  At Genetic Maize Anastasia argues that a different style of GURT would be a better choice for preventing gene flow.

The prevention of gene flow is an interesting issue when it comes to GURTs. On one hand, companies want to make money selling their GE seeds and not have to chase patent infringers for saving their seeds. So the biological reification of the legal landscape seems to be what the opponents are the most afraid of. On the other hand, GURTs can be seen as a layer of protection for those who do not want to grow (or eat) genetically engineered crops.

My Mission is to Protect You

terminator-2-judgement-dayIn the first Terminator film, Arnold Schwarzenegger played the enemy, a robot bent on terminating Sarah Connor before she could bear Humanity’s Last Hope. In the second film, the same Schwarzenegger instead played the part of the protector of Connor and her son. How can “Terminator” technology instead become a protector working for seed savers rather than against?

To explain this, let me turn to Jeremy at the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog. Jeremy is not known for very glowing reviews of genetically engineered crops, although he has said that he tires of the same old pro-anti debate. But recently, he posted a very thoughtful rant on seed saving and GURTs:

When are the knee-jerk opponents of genetically modified crops going to realize that genetic use restriction technologies (GURTs) are their friends?1


GURTs thus stop any characters bred into a GMO from being transferred into another variety of the same crop and into the crop’s wild relatives.

So, IIED, remind me, please: why is that a bad thing?

Does it stop the farmer saving seeds? On the contrary, it makes life easier, because the farmer does not have to worry about genetic pollution. She can, of course, still take advantage of good pollution, or introgression, if she wants to.

Does it stop her using farm-saved seed? No, how could it, when any polluted seeds are going to fail to grow. It makes using the farm-saved seed more secure.

Can she still exchange and sell farm-saved seed? You bet, and not only that, but her customers and swap-partners will be grateful that her seeds cannot possibly be polluted.

Opponents of GURTs seem to think that massive influxes of foreign pollen are the norm. They’re not. And I certainly wouldn’t want to accept, even as a gift, seed from someone who knew so little about farming and seed saving that they couldn’t even maintain their own varieties. Cross pollination from a different field is a fascinating and rare source of diversity in farmers’ fields, not the norm. GURTs pose absolutely no threat to farm-saved seed. In fact, I believe that they can enhance genetic diversity (by maintaining the separation between varieties), improve seed quality (for the same reasons) and have no impact at all on the livelihoods of poor farmers.

So you can easily see that GE crops with GURTs in them can instead be used to protect non-GE crops from cross-pollination. Indeed, as many opponents of GE crops argue that farmers are afraid of getting sued for cross-pollination, this fear would be all but eliminated if they were using GURTs. Percy Schmeiser would have remained an obscure canola farmer in Canada. He wouldn’t have been able to spray his fields and collect herbicide-tolerant canola seeds for replanting, and he couldn’t have gotten sued.

There’s something else to think about when it comes to opponents of genetic engineering. Often, the argument is made that GE crops cannot be grown unless there is a 0% risk of affecting the environment, organic farms, etc. Zero percent risk does not exist anywhere in the Universe, but this is as close as it comes. Essentially, the most hardcore anti-GE voices out there are asking for GURTs, whether or not they are aware of it. The more you demand absolute exclusion of cross-pollination in biosafety regulations, the more incentive you are giving biotech companies to develop terminator technologies. If you really cannot stomach GURTs, then maybe pushing a little less hard on absolute separation would be tactically smarter (just a little advice).

Vandana_Shiva,_environmentalist,_at_Rishikesh,_2007GURTs are not opposed for scientific reasons – the pseudo-biological reasons given by Shiva et al are a scientific veneer on what is really an economic argument. They fear consolidation of the seed market and corporate control of the food supply. But as Jeremy has demonstrated, the seed-saving diva Shiva might find GURTs to be her best ally in keeping a GE-free farm-saved seed supply in circulation amongst poor farmers. If a GURT can prevent the flow of patented transgenes into openly-traded seed supplies, it would instead be a A T-101 working to protect her effort from Monsanto’s T-1000. Ironic, isn’t it?

I’m not advocating the use of GURTs, lest anybody misunderstand me. (Although I could form a cogent argument in favor of GURTs in pharma-crops.) But there is more to this trait than meets the eye, and I think that it has become a lightning-rod issue that is less clear-cut than its opponents make it out to be. The Terminator can be sent to kill, but it can also be sent to protect. Discussions about the use of technology so often hinge on these kinds of dualities, which is why we need to discuss these things in a more sensible (and scientific) fashion.

I’ll leave you with Jeremy’s dynamite conclusion.

I hold no brief for or against GMOs, though I do think they have yet to prove themselves in the areas where they make the loudest claims. This is not about GMOs. It is about honesty. Any opponent of GMOs, however good the rest of their arguments might be, immediately loses my respect if they are also against GURTs.

*Arnold voice*: “Respect Terminated.”

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.