The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)


Issues and consequences of ‘Terminator’ gene technology for IPR use, marketing and management of associated risks and liabilities

Stuart Smyth
University of Saskatchewan

George Khachatourians
Applied Microbiology and Food Science
University of Saskatchewan

Peter W.B. Phillips
Agriculture Economics
University of Saskatchewan

In October 1999 Robert Shapiro, Monsanto CEO said: "We are making a public commitment not to commercialise sterile seed technologies, such as the one dubbed ‘terminator’". A statement viewed favourably by many. However costs from cross-pollination and volunteer growth of genetically modified (GM) crops have risen. By 2003, GM wheat and new pharmaceutical crop varieties will establish the need to control commingling of second-generation seeds. We examine genetic use restriction technology issues: intellectual property rights (IPR); marketing; and management of associated liabilities and risks.

Seedless edible crop varieties produced by traditional plant breeding methods and recombinant DNA (rDNA) based technologies are advantageous to fruit processing, production agriculture and gustatory value. The prerequisite knowledge of flower pollination, fertilization, fruit development and genetics have produced seedless grapes (1936), watermelons (1951) and new crops. To generate seedless fruits, genetic interference at the level of post fertilization and seed development are required. Contemporary methods for generating seedless plants use rDNA technologies resulting in IPR protection. Two examples are found in the patents of Tomes and Odell. Tomes’ patent (Patent WO 97/40179) combines two independent biochemical traits (i.e., synthesis of tryptophan) and indole acetic acid (IAA). IAA is an auxin whose over expression leads to seed abortion. The Odell, et al., patent (Patent WO 98/09957) describes how in-vitro rDNA techniques generate two genes (Cre-loxP) from bacterial virus to produce a number of DNA site specific cytotoxicities and inactivation of seeds. Thus, the designation ‘terminator’.

These IPRs have public concerns and technical problems (i.e., the terminator had ‘several potential problems’) associated with implementation at commercial levels. Propagation of seedless varieties by either system needs much more work. Arguably, new seedless plant varieties could have negative impacts for the Third World. This could occur if seeds from previous plants are non-viable, resulting in producer dependence on seed purchases.

Irrespective of the above arguments, there are advantages, such as creating multi-trait seedless varieties. Some traits will be complementary, some competing and yet others useful for particular niche markets and all would have consumer potential. We will examine what precautions need to be addressed by seed development companies prior to launching new crop varieties possessing this technology. World-wide, importing nations are becoming increasingly concerned with the contents of imported raw commodities, as was evidenced by the StarLink issue and tightening of import standards. Canadian exporters will be forced into ensuring they have the ability to comply. Exporters can have a means for managing the potential liabilities arising from voluntary commingling of seeds. To discharge risk management, two scenarios emerge: i) to eliminate volunteer GM grains or oilseeds appearing in other commodities; and ii) to use a ‘terminator’ technology.

By 2003 we expect a dramatic rise in potential future liabilities. A predictive test case build upon the adoption rates for herbicide tolerant (HT) canola in Western Canada has estimated the potential costs for seed development companies. Given the above, we can present the costs that seed development companies may incur when compensating for the presence of unwanted volunteer varieties of HT wheat.

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