Apr 18, 2009

Equador might accept Terminator technology

Sometimes back, there was an interesting case of a absurd patent filed before the European Patent Office. The patent was about a lactating gene in the lower vertebrates, and was written in such a manner that it extended to human females. I am not sure whether the patent application is still pending before the EPO, but the lawyer for the company that filed for the patent had said that he is waiting for the day when a stupid patent official will approve the patent.

This brings me to the controversial issue of terminator seeds. The ever-agile ETC has issued an alert today, which tells us that Equador, a biodiversity rich country in Latin America, has possibly opened its door to the terminator technology. The new President, Rafael Correa has made certain changes in a proposed legislation, and sent it back to the Congress. Obviously, the President is under pressure from the biotech industry, and as we know the industry prefers to wait for the day when a 'right kind of leader' takes over.

Who says perseverance doesn't pay?

Elizabeth Bravo of Accion Ecologica in Equador is really a brave person. She is quick to understand, and among the first to react to the Presidential amendment, and her warning may save the Equadorians from an impending (un)natural disaster. I remember the days when ETC (it was then called RAFI) had first issued an alert on the terminator seed, The Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security in New Delhi was quick to analyse its implications, and issue a warning. Within a fortnight, the then Agriculture Minister Mr Sompal made a statement in Parliament saying that India would not allow terminator. And subsequently it became such an emotive issue that terminator was finally outlawed. The Indian Plant Varieties Protection & Farmer Rights Act (PVPFA) explicitly states that.

Brazil is another country that has outlawed terminator technology.

But let us not be complacent. The biotech companies have not given up. Even India and Brazil are under tremendous pressure to accept terminator in its new form, being now branded and promoted as a biosafety tool. If the Equdaor Congress accepts the partial-veto from the President, and I am not sure whether they have the power to reject the Presidential amendment, it will be the beginning of an end of the kind of nature that you and me have been lucky to find ourselves in the midst of.

Equador is a test case. Believe me, if Equador accepts the Terminator technology, your country's turn (wherever you are based) would not be far away. And don't be under the impression that you have nothing to fear as the famous Hollywood actor and now California's governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would be able to use his muscle power to fight out the forces behind Terminator. The power to stop the Terminator rests only with you. If you don't want to exercise your power, don't blame anyone.

Here is the ETC alert:

Terminating Food Sovereignty in Ecuador? President opens door to Terminator seeds

On February 18, 2009, the Ecuadorian Congress approved a new Law on Food Sovereignty, which, among other important points, declared the country “free of transgenic crops and seeds.” However, in spite of vocal popular opposition, the legislation left the door open to approvals of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in “exceptional” cases. Now, President Rafael Correa has proposed several changes to the legislation – in what is known in Ecuador as a partial-veto – and sent it back to the Congress. The president's changes dangerously weaken the law and open the door to Terminator seeds.

Terminator technology is designed to make “suicide seeds,” geneticallyengineered to be sterile in the second generation. The technology hasbeen widely rejected around the world by farmers’ movements, governments, research institutions and UN agencies as dangerous, immoral and undesirable.

Alarmed by President Correa's proposals, civil society is now calling on him to drop his amendments and to explicitly ban Terminatortechnology.

“It's very disturbing that a law that aims to affirm food sovereignty could instead clear the way for a technology that was designed toprevent it,” said Silvia Ribeiro of ETC Group. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the companies that designed suicide seed technologydid so explicitly to replace what they called peasants’ 'old seeds.' Since 2000, when a de facto moratorium against Terminator technology was agreed at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity [CBD], these companies have re-branded Terminator as a 'biosafety' tool. This is the interpretation reflected in the president's amended text. Ribeiro adds, “We're worried that this kind of language is showing up inseveral countries in the global South and we see it as a new push by the biotech industry to overturn the moratorium on Terminator at theCBD's meeting next year in Japan.”

Article 26 of Ecuador's Law on Food Sovereignty, entitled “Regulationof biotechnology and its products,” allowed for the import and processing of “raw materials containing transgenic inputs, providedthey meet the requirements of health and safety, and that the reproductive capacity of the seeds is disabled by breaking [of grains](…)”

The explicit clarification of “seed disabled by breaking” was included to ensure that if transgenic seeds were imported through food aid, or for processing, accidental gene flow from these grains would not contaminate crops in Ecuador, as has tragically happened in Mexico and other countries.

The partial-veto of President Correa removes the phrase “bybreaking”[1] from this article, arguing that breaking the grains would mean increased costs. The result is that the amended wording now allows for the importation of GM materials provided only that the“reproductive capacity of seeds is disabled.” Such language equals an acceptance of grains with Terminator technology.

Elizabeth Bravo of Acción Ecológica, an internationally-respected environmental civil society organization in Ecuador, comments, “Unfortunately, the president's changes to the legislation reflect the influence of his biotech industry-friendly advisors. Terminator is an experimental technology that has never been proven. Scientific reports submitted to the CBD demonstrate that the complexity and instabilityof Terminator seeds mean that, in practice, there will still beleakage of GM traits. We could face a worst-case scenario: Ecuador enabling both GM contamination and suicide seeds. That is a direct threat to agricultural biodiversity, an essential basis for food sovereignty in Ecuador.”

Bravo added, “This text works against the provisions of article 73 of Ecuador's Constitution, which 'prohibits the introduction of organicand inorganic material that can alter in a definitive way the national genetic heritage.'”

Maria José Guazzelli from Brazil and the international Ban Terminator Campaign (made up of hundreds of organizations throughout the world), also voiced concern. “It would be outrageous for Ecuador, which always supported the international moratorium against Terminator, to open the gate to this terrible technology at the national level. Instead, Ecuador should legislate a ban on the import, development, trials and commercialization of Terminator seeds, as Brazil has already done.”

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