GENETIC USE RESTRICTION TECHNOLOGIES: A TOOL TO FORCE FARMERS TO DEPEND ON MULTINATIONAL SEED COMPANIES.
Mubashir Abbas*, Syed Ikram Ali Shah, Manzoor ul Hassan.
Center of Agricultural Biochemistry and Biotechnology, University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, Pakistan.
*Corresponding author: [email protected]
Biotechnology has helped mankind in a number of ways by overcoming hurdles in the path of research, biotechnology has made impossible thing possible by inventing new methods to solve problems in every field of science, and it is applicable to every science including health, agriculture, industrial, environmental etc. It has brought revolution in every field especially in agriculture, in which its miracles are limitless beyond the imagination. But the misuse of this technology could push mankind in trouble. A recent innovation brought by biotechnology is the suicide seed technology, in which seeds containing the trait of interest are unable to produce fertile 2nd generation seeds or it would not express the desired trait until a specific treatment, which could be an external inducer such as spray of a specific chemical. This strategy has benefited the biotech companies by securing return on investments through protection of plant varieties. The four giant biotech companies including Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Dow own 80% of corn and more than 70% of soybeans. Of these companies, Monsanto has been able to dominate the entire market in less than 10 years and has earned the credit of being world’s largest seed company. The belligerent policies of Monsanto and its dominancy over seed market and world food supply have strapped smaller farmers out of business.
Using a technology named as GURTS (genetic use restriction technologies), seeds containing a desirable genetically engineered trait (insect or herbicide resistance) have been altered to make them unable to reproduce, thus coercing farmers to buy new seeds each year from the company that owns the patented seeds. Such seeds have been developed, but as of 2007, they have never been sold. These are among the most controversial and conflicting genetic engineering technologies as they are supposed as a tool to force farmers to depend on multinational company’s seed monopolies.
The first patent application for this biological switch mechanism was filed by DuPont in 1991, and granted in 1994, entitled “External regulation of gene expression by inducible promoters”. In 1992 another biotech company named Syngenta filed a technology application entitled “improved plant germplasm” Published by WIPO (world intellectual property organization) in February 1994.
GURTs (genetic use of restriction technologies) is of two types, one is the V-GURT or variety specific, is intended to control plant fertility or seed development through a genetic process activated by a chemical inducer that will permit the plant to grow and to form seeds, but will allow the embryo of each of those seed to produce a cell toxin which makes the second generation seeds sterile and thus prevent its growth if replanted.
The second type of GURT known as T-GURT is designed to switch on or off a trait of interest such as drought tolerance, herbicide or insect resistance etc. In this type of GURTs the gene encoding the trait of interest is kept silent, but it can be triggered by the farmer through the application of a chemical inducer to the plant or seed. In the succeeding fertile generations, the gene is inherited in inactive form. So that the chemical must be purchased each year in order to express the trait by the farmer. In this way the farmers will be totally dependent on the company.
This technology seems to be disadvantageous and unethical to the farming community of the world, especially in the developing countries where saving seeds is a common practice. It is estimated that seed saving account for between 15% and 20% of the world’s food supply. It is practiced by 100 million farmers in Latin America, 300 million in Africa and 1 billion in Asia (IIPTA 2012).
The other concerns regarding the use of GURTs are the possible impacts on biodiversity, sustainable agricultural development, and farmer’s access to the use of genetic resources. This could introduce new, identical GURT-protected varieties that would replace the adapted or well established cultivars and wild relative species, causing the erosion of genetic diversity and would have adverse effects on native germplasms. The chemicals used to activate the trait of interest (such as tetracycline, an antibiotic) may have harmful effects on soil ecology. It would also be possible that suicide genes could be suddenly activated in different parts of the plant other than seed at different times, which could be damaging to the ecosystem and life.
According to the scientific community of the world, T-GURTs could be favorable in a sense that they would allow farmers to decide whether and possibly when, to activate the trait of interest i-e they can be used to switch a desired trait on or off in favorable and unfavorable conditions such as drought and salt stress or insect-pest attack.
On the other, T-GURTs have raised concerns in the mind of farming community of the world because it limits a farmer’s right to stock seed for the purpose of sowing the following year and it appears to hand more power to plant breeders and less to the farmers. Therefore the scientific community of the world should conduct proper research on the use of these technologies led by the top scientists of the world and bring the real face of this technology infront of the world.