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Biotech The Courts Science

Monsanto's 'Terminator' Seeds Set To Make a Comeback 284

Posted by Soulskill
from the i'll-be-back dept.
ananyo writes "Monsanto and other biotechnology firms could be looking to bring back 'terminator' seed technology. The seeds are genetically engineered so that crops grown from them produce sterile seed. They prompted such an outcry that, as Slashdot noted, Monsanto's chief executive pledged not to commercialize them. But a case in the U.S. Supreme Court could allow farmers to plant the progeny of GM seeds rather than buying new seeds from Monsanto, making the technology attractive to biotech companies again. Some environmentalists also see 'terminator' seeds as a way of avoiding GM crops contaminating organic/non-GM crops." Reader 9gezegen adds that Monsanto is getting support, oddly, from parts of the software industry. From the NY Times: "BSA/The Software Alliance, which represents companies like Apple and Microsoft, said in a brief that a decision against Monsanto might 'facilitate software piracy on a broad scale' because software can be easily replicated. But it also said that a decision that goes too far the other way could make nuisance software patent infringement lawsuits too easy to file." The case was heard today; here is a transcript (PDF), and a clear explanation of what the case is about.
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Monsanto's 'Terminator' Seeds Set To Make a Comeback

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  • by davidwr (791652) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @05:42PM (#42949637) Homepage Journal

    What laws have they, as individuals (vs. as a corporation) broken, specifically? Exclude laws that typically do not result in prison time.

    If the answer is something other than "none," then you need to ask the relevant prosecutors, not Slashdot. If the answer is "none" then there's your answer.

  • Assuming that the particular terminator gene doesn't have unwanted side-effects, then I don't see a problem with it. This is the same standard I apply to other genetically modified living things.

    Can you tell me how much testing is done to verify these things are safe? How long and how numerous are the human trials? I mean, I've seen the tobacco industry burn people on this exact same thing before by avoiding rigorous studies. Is this stuff treated just like the FDA treats any sort of medicine that we put into our bodies or does it just get rubber stamped through like a natural food? I would be suspicious that anything developed in the past ten years or less is completely guaranteed to be safe for the duration of a human life. Also, I am rather afraid if we get to a point where symptoms develop but we can't pin down which genetically modified food is doing it because everything's genetically modified and even growing things organically doesn't mean anything because of cross pollination. If you can convince me not to worry about that, I'm all ears! For instance, increases of lead in our body looked safe cosmetically and look at all the studies coming out about that.

  • by holmstar (1388267) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @05:45PM (#42949681)
    If this works:
    Positive: Monsanto would no longer be able to sue farmers claiming that they are using Monsanto seed to produce a seed crop to use for planting the next year.
    Negative: If the gene causing infertility is transmitted via pollen, then farmers that try to produce an heirloom seed crop near a field planted with a Monsanto variety would be screwed since their seed crop could end up infertile.
  • Re:Uhmmm.... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @05:52PM (#42949751)

    Er; the seeds are the product.

  • by twistofsin (718250) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @05:52PM (#42949757)
    To repopulate all the crops after their doomsday crops pollinate every other farmers fields and causes famine.
  • by crath (80215) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @06:00PM (#42949877) Homepage

    Negative: If the gene causing infertility is transmitted via pollen, then farmers that try to produce an heirloom seed crop near a field planted with a Monsanto variety would be screwed since their seed crop could end up infertile.

    This is exactly what will happen, and so Monsanto will put and end to many farmers' current practice of saving part of this years crop as next year's seed--since their seed yield will be reduced they negatively impact their future yield due to a percentage of the seed being sterile.

  • by MozeeToby (1163751) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @06:07PM (#42949961)

    Chase down the guy(s) that put your grain into that elevator and sue the living shit out of them. Then make sure all your current customers know that they're legally culpable for what a grain elevator does with your intellectual property.

    Except no one in that chain did anything wrong.

    1) Farmer A buys seed from Monsanto
    2) Farmer A grows crop, harvests and sells the result as feed (which they are allowed to do under their license agreement)
    3) Farmer B buys feed from the silo (which is legal for both farmer B and the silo)

    All of that is legal, and no one, not even Monsanto argues against it. Where it gets (a tiny bit) murkier is:

    4) Farmer B realizes that most of his feed is round up ready, plants it
    5) Farmer B sprays the field with round up
    6) Farmer B harvests the result, 100% (or near enough) round up ready seed obtained without signing any agreements with Monsanto

    Monsanto's argument will be that by spraying the field with round up, farmer B was deliberately selecting for the gene that Monsanto has patented. It's a grey area in the law, which is why it's gone to the supreme court. And the annoying thing is, even after the case is decided there's going to be all kinds of wiggle room for both sides of the argument to continue litigating to their heart's content.

  • by MozeeToby (1163751) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @06:09PM (#42949977)

    A better question would be: "Why haven't all the people who wrote the laws that make this possible (and legal) been thrown out of office yet?"

  • by hawguy (1600213) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @06:19PM (#42950099)

    I don't see how they can equate biological replication with software:

    BSA/The Software Alliance, which represents companies like Apple and Microsoft, said in a brief that a decision against Monsanto might “facilitate software piracy on a broad scale” because software can be easily replicated. But it also said that a decision that goes too far the other way could make nuisance software patent infringement lawsuits too easy to file.

    Software isn't self replicating, you have to explicitly make a copy of it to get it to replicate itself. That's completely different from seeds that naturally replicate themselves and which is why you plant them in the first place. You could take one copy of a program and install it on multiple computers, but the human is doing the replicating, not the software itself.

  • by PopeRatzo (965947) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @07:02PM (#42950603) Homepage Journal

    This doesn't stop until all food is proprietary. I think this fact is where the discussion should start. The corporate holy grail is for all life to be covered by "intellectual" property. Where not a breath is taken that doesn't put money in the pockets of a certain segment of the population.

    Parents are going to have to sign license agreements before they can take their baby home from the hospital soon.

    You know the joke about how you don't buy beer, you only rent it? We're going to live to see the day where you don't buy beer, you only license it.

  • by radtea (464814) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @07:15PM (#42950725)

    Negative: If the gene causing infertility is transmitted via pollen, then farmers that try to produce an heirloom seed crop near a field planted with a Monsanto variety would be screwed since their seed crop could end up infertile.

    This is not an "if" but a "when". It is as near to a certainty as anything can be.

    If anyone other than a large, politically generous American corporation were proposing to do this it would be considered at act of bioterrorism to release terminator seeds into the wild, because cross-pollination with wild-type seeds is a certainty and therefore everyone not buying new seed every year will suffer from yield reductions due to Monsanto's seeds.

  • by ChromeAeonium (1026952) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @07:36PM (#42950925)

    Can you tell me how much testing is done to verify these things are safe?

    A lot. [usda.gov]

    How long and how numerous are the human trials?

    Why don't you tell me why they are necessary. Okay, a corn has a cspB gene, or a cotton has a Cry1Ab gene, or a soy has C4 epsps gene, or a papaya has prsv cp gene, or an apple has an antisense PPO gene. Why should that bother me, especially considering all the other mandatory testing?

    I would be suspicious that anything developed in the past ten years or less is completely guaranteed to be safe for the duration of a human life.

    You should be suspicious of things that you have reason to be suspicious of, not things that could potentially have an unknown unknown, which is pretty much everything. You can't prove that something won't be dangerous because you can't prove a negative, but there is neither reason to suspect that GE crops are dangerous nor is there evidence suggesting that GE crops are dangerous, unless you count Wakefield grade rubbish like the Séralini study. It irks me that when people say that some stuff about wifi or cell phones they are mocked but saying it about biotechnology is enlightened.

    If you can convince me not to worry about that, I'm all ears!

    Read these studies [biofortified.org], and statements from various organizations like the WHO [who.int], FDA, EFSA [europa.eu], FSANZ [foodstandards.gov.au],NAP [nap.edu], ANBIO, AAAS [aaas.org], ect. The scientific consensus on genetic engineering is pretty solid. You can hate on Monsanto all you want (although you should be aware that the business end, like the science end, is often fought with misconceptions, half truths, and downright FUD), and I'm not saying there are not nuances that should be rationally discussed (such as herbicide resistant weeds and resistance breakdown, although those are larger issues that have affected non-GE crops as well) but the science behind genetically engineered crops is solid. In many ways, the controversy over genetically engineered crops is the agricultural equivalent to the controversies surrounding evolution, climate change, and vaccines.

  • by dgatwood (11270) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @07:55PM (#42951143) Journal

    Assuming that the particular terminator gene doesn't have unwanted side-effects, then I don't see a problem with it. This is the same standard I apply to other genetically modified living things.

    I would go one step further. Assuming that the particular terminator gene doesn't have unwanted side effects, I am of the opinion that it should be mandatory, because it reduces the risk associated with genetically modified plants considerably.

    When it comes to future evolution and survival of the fittest, genetically modified crops, particularly when those modifications involve resistance against weed killer, are likely to be preferentially naturally selected for. In the absence of modifications that prevent those genes from being passed on to future generations, those modified varieties will likely eventually become the dominant variety over all non-modified varieties. If in fifty or a hundred years, we discover that one of those genetic modifications causes harm, it will be an uphill battle to get our agriculture back to safe crops.

    By contrast, if the genetically modified varieties contain terminator genes that make them sterile, the issue of contaminating future generations of plants ceases to be a problem. When farmers stop planting the dangerous variety, it stops growing. This, of course, assumes a completely effective terminator gene, which probably isn't likely, but even an imperfect terminator gene would help balance the odds somewhat.

  • by icebike (68054) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @07:56PM (#42951153)

    But nothing was stolen here.

    Bowman bought the seeds from a grain elevator, the natural market for seed crops. The farmers legally sold their seed into the market, and the market legally sold it to food producers and Bowman. Monsanto's claim to the seed was exhausted.

    Nothing was stolen.

  • by ChromeAeonium (1026952) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @08:04PM (#42951215)

    That somewhat greyer area is what makes this case stand out. The farmer is claiming that his actions are legal via the first sale doctrine. He says the seeds were sold once, and therefore whatever happens after that is fair game. Monsanto says that, because the seeds in question are not purchased seeds but newly produced seeds, the first sale doctrine does not apply, and because the farmer intentionally selected for what he knew were the transgenic seeds, it is a patent violation. I think the case will go to Monsanto because I can't imagine any other case where knowingly producing something under patent would fly. I suppose you could say that the beans were reproducing themselves, but that ignores the human intervention necessary for this to even be a case, which I feel is the key detail here.

    That said, considering the patent on Monsanto's first GE soybean expires next year (at which point anyone will be able to grow their own transgenic soy free from having to deal with Monsanto), I think they're kind of stupid for making this into a case and, right or wrong, generating even more animosity for themselves, although perhaps they actually want this to go to the Supreme Court in the hopes of setting precedent.

  • by icebike (68054) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @08:10PM (#42951267)

    Monsanto's argument will be that by spraying the field with round up, farmer B was deliberately selecting for the gene that Monsanto has patented.

    Saving the best of a crop for next year's planting is also a time honored farming method. Selecting for some quality that is already present in your crop is perfectly normal. It was how crops were improved over centuries. One could probably get by using round up every other year, then Monsanto would be going after grandchild crops.

    Because Monsanto can tweak this crop annually (on once every 17 years, or never, and just pretend they did), this is a patent that will never expire. There has to be some limits, and now is a good time to set them.

    Lets just imagine this same technique is applied to controlling human genetics. Imagine parents paying for a in vitro genetic treatment that prevents cancer (or something) forever. Then the company come's after the children, demanding payment before the are allowed to procreate. This is a dangerous precedent to set.

    So is terminator seed. Big fire at Monsanto, and the world starves because no seed grows? Stupid.

  • by icebike (68054) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @09:26PM (#42951867)

    Seed stock are only sold for one purpose. To plant.
    Its not logical that you can buy a seed that can't be planted.

    If it were an animal, could you not breed it? Does the owner of Secretariat get to say a stud descended from Secretariat can't be bred?

    Living things can not be ruled as if they were widgets.

  • by Shavano (2541114) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @10:00PM (#42952107)

    Big fire at Monsanto, and the world starves because no seed grows?

    They don't produce all their seed in one spot you know, nor are they the only seed company out there.

    They're trying awfully hard to be.

  • by Opportunist (166417) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @11:37PM (#42952703)

    Well DUH! Whenever some CEO says "We won't do it" as soon as something they planned (read: quietly announced to test the waters) caused a public outcry, it only means "we're waiting for you to be occupied with something else".

    They invested money inventing it, it benefits them, they won't just "forget" about it. They wait for YOU to forget about it.

  • Re:Why... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Opportunist (166417) on Tuesday February 19, 2013 @11:44PM (#42952717)

    Because of the golden rule: Those with the gold make the rule.

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