Monsanto Bars Selling of Seeds Made Infertile
By BARNABY J. FEDER
Seeking to remove itself from an inflamed debate in biotechnology, the Monsanto
Company said Monday that it would make no effort to market seeds that
produce crop plants that are themselves infertile.
Although the possibility of any company's selling such seeds is years away, and Monsanto
has repeatedly said that it has not developed them, its prominence in biotechnology and its
plans to purchase a company that has patented such seeds have made it a lightning rod for the
furor over what critics have labeled "Terminator" technology.
Seed sterility could be a very valuable trait for the major biotechnology companies, which,
through genetic modification, have created plants with traits like resistance to insect pests or
the ability to withstand spraying with weed killers.
If the seeds these engineered crops produced were sterile, and could not be replanted,
farmers eager to profit from the valuable traits inserted by genetic engineering would pay for
them year after year by buying new seeds, rather than simply saving seeds from their crops
for replanting the following spring.
But critics call the technology an example of a drive by agribusinesses to make farmers
dependent on them and the chemicals many of them produce. Some also suggested that
pollen from the engineered crops could render plants in neighbors' fields sterile without the
farmers realizing it. They hailed yesterday's announcement. "We think it is a very positive
sign that Monsanto recognizes there is overwhelming opposition," said Hope Shand,
research director for the Rural Advancement Foundation International, a Canadian advocacy
group that first drew attention to the technology.
Monsanto's move is unlikely to end work on the technology. Monsanto itself held open the
possibility that it would continue research for internal use, and Delta and Pine Land, a cotton
company it is trying to purchase, said it would continue its research as long as it is
Other companies may continue related work, because seed sterility is just one part of a much
broader area of research regarded as crucial by many biotechnology companies: the use of
chemicals to turn particular genes on or off at specific times in the life of a plant, animal or
human. Many patents covering pieces of the technology mention sterility as a possible
Monsanto began backing away from the controversy last spring by saying it would not
pursue seed sterility unless worldwide discussions with customers, critics, researchers and
regulators produced a consensus in favor of it.
Monday's announcement closing the door more firmly came in a letter from Robert B.
Shapiro, Monsanto's chairman, to Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller
Foundation, a leading sponsor of agricultural research in developing nations, where
opposition to the Terminator technology has been intense.
The technology is many years from being ready for market; some experts doubt that it could
ever be. "Seed sterility involves a complex of genes and presents a nightmare of technical
hurdles irrespective of public opinion," said Charles Arntzen, president of the Boyce
Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Monsanto and other major biotechnology companies have all maintained that seed sterility
has not been the focus of their research despite the patent claims. Most worry privately that
the publicity surrounding Terminator is a public relations disaster in an industry already
under attack on other, more serious fronts, like demands to label products containing
genetically engineered foods and restrictions in Europe on growing or importing genetically
engineered crops and food products.
The Terminator nickname, recalling a robotic killer played by Arnold Schwarzenegger,
was first applied to a method developed by the Department of Agriculture and Delta and Pine
Land, the Oxford, Miss., company Monsanto has sought to buy since the spring of 1998.
That deal has been held up by antitrust reviews.
The Agriculture Department-Delta project, under Dr. Melvin Oliver, a department researcher
in Lubbock, Tex., involves a tricky balance of suppressing and releasing key genes. The last
step causes the plant to make a protein that sterilizes a seed after the plant is mature and every
marketable element in the seed, such as vegetable oil, is fully developed.
Dr. Oliver is several weeks away from harvesting the first seeds believed to have been
sterilized with the technology. The laboratory's test crop is tobacco, which is widely used in
research because its genes are relatively easy to manipulate. The second target crop, cotton,
is much further behind. "This may be the right decision for Monsanto, but I think
abandoning the technology is a mistake," Dr. Oliver said Monday.
In particular, he said, seed sterility could be an important tool for assuring that other
genetically engineered traits like herbicide resistance do not escape into wild plants. If such
traits could be linked, any weed that picked up the gene for herbicide resistance would also
be unable to pass on that valuable trait because its seeds would be sterile.
Despite Monday's announcement, Monsanto might use seed-sterility technology internally, a
spokeswoman, Scarlett L. Foster, said. Many researchers say genetically controlling fertility
could help traditional breeders at the seed companies that have been acquired in recent years
by Monsanto, DuPont and other major chemical concerns produce new hybrids efficiently.
But Ms. Foster said yesterday's announcement meant that Monsanto would not only make
sure that none of its commercial products were sterile, but would also refuse to license the
Agriculture Department-Delta technology if the acquisition of Delta is completed.
Delta, for its part, reaffirmed its plans to keep financing the research as long as it is
independent. "There are a lot of people interested in talking about licensing it, including some
fairly big seed companies," said Harry B. Collins, the company's vice president for
The Agriculture Department said it would continue discussing licensing of the technology
with Delta and others because it has applications far beyond seed sterility.
Monsanto's letter to Professor Conway at the Rockefeller Foundation minimized the
significance of seed sterility in biotechnology, a field in which it has become the world sales
leader. Shapiro, the company's chairman, described the Terminator technology as just one
of many "gene protection" systems and said that Monsanto had patents for others it might
develop in the future.
One example covers a method that would allow farmers to buy seeds that would grow
normally without special treatment but exhibit valuable genetically engineered traits only if
the farmer paid a premium for Monsanto, or its seed dealer, to apply a chemical or some
other treatment that activated the genes.
Shapiro said that Monsanto is not now investing in such research but that it wants an "open,
independent airing of all the issues raised by the use of gene protection systems to protect the
investment companies make in agricultural innovation."
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