The claim by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) that it has not altered its policy on genetically modified terminator technology – used to sterilise farm-saved seeds, thereby protecting corporate seed sales – does not stand up to serious scrutiny. The Defra policy, published on February 21 in advance of the meeting later this month of the eighth conference of the parties to the UN convention on biodiversity (CBD), calls for a case-by-case assessment of terminator crops. It differs significantly from what I approved in 2000.
I could see the need for a global agreement on how to prevent the release of terminator. The parties to the CBD agreed with me and decided that terminator technology, a varietal-genetic use restriction technology (v-GURT), posed a greater threat than any other type of GM seeds because it would undermine farmers’ seed saving – as practised by 1.4 billion people worldwide – and would threaten food security and agricultural biodiversity. Using this technology would force more farmers to buy new seed each season from corporations whose control over seeds is already substantial – just 10 corporations control more than 50% of global seed sales.
The result was the global de facto moratorium agreed by the CBD.
This decision, in 2000, stated that no terminator licences should be approved until the potential socio-economic impact of the technology on farming communities around the world had been assessed. To date, no such assessments have been published.
So what is the basis of the change in UK policy? Could it be Defra has swallowed the corporate hype that terminator will prevent GM genes contaminating neighbouring crops or wild plants. This is nonsense because terminator cannot provide 100% sterility, nor prevent normal cross-contamination through pollen drift. In any case, that is not its purpose; it is to make the seeds agronomically unviable in order to ensure seed sales.
Defra’s published policy has retroactively reinterpreted the CBD decision in favour of a national case-by-case approach, which is EU policy for any GMO approval. Terminator crops would thus be subject only to a scientific risk assessment, as required by EU directive 2001/18. Socio-economic factors, such as the impact on poor farmers’ livelihoods, would be ignored. Without internationally accepted assessments of impacts, and globally-binding rules, poor southern countries would struggle to withstand pressure from biotechnology companies to license terminator seeds. Is this Defra’s ulterior motive?
The policy as now stated by Defra undermines the international agreement signed in 2000, by opening up the possibility of terminator creeping on to the market by stealth. Ministers and officials must review their document, making it clear that the UK is not in favour of terminator at all.
There can be no doubt that public opinion in Britain remains overwhelmingly against GM, and would be even more strongly against allowing use of the terminator technology if it was understood that this would endanger food security across all developing countries and would worsen world poverty.
Defra has a duty to do whatever is necessary at the CBD meeting to ensure this potentially devastating technology never sees the light of day.