'Zombie crops' funded by British taxpayers to 'get round' GM ban
2007-06-19 0:00

By Geoffrey Lean | environment.independent.co.uk

"Zombie" GM crops - so called because farmers will have to pay biotech companies to bring seeds back from the dead - are being developed with British taxpayers' money.

The highly controversial development - part of a Ł3.4m EU research project - is bound to increase concerns about the modified crops and the devastating effect they could have on Third World farmers.

Environmentalists charge that it appears to be an attempt to get round a worldwide ban on a GM technology so abhorred that even Monsanto has said it will not use it.

The ban is on the so-called "terminator technology", which was designed to modify crops so that they produce only sterile seeds. This would force the 1.4 billion poor farmers who traditionally save seeds from one year's harvest to sow for the following one instead to buy new ones from biotech firms, swelling their profits but increasing poverty and hunger.

Since the ban was agreed under a UN treaty seven years ago, companies and pro-GM countries - including the United States and Britain - have pressed to have it overturned, so far without success. But the new technology promises to offer companies an even more profitable way of achieving dominance.

Zombie crops would also be engineered to produce sterile seed that could be brought back to life with the right treatment - almost certainly with a chemical sold by the company that markets the seed. Farmers would therefore have to pay out, not for new seeds, but to make the ones they saved viable.

A report published last week by ETC - the Canada-based Action Group on Erosion Technology and Concentration that led the campaign against terminator technology - calls this "a dream scenario for the Gene Giants".

It says it will be cheaper for them to sell farmers the chemicals to revive saved seeds than to pay the costs of storing and distributing new ones. It adds: "They will initially keep prices low. But once farmers are on the platform, and the competition has been destroyed, the companies can start pricing the chemical that restores seed viability as high as they like. The key point is that the viability of the crop would be controlled by the corporation that sells the seed."

The three-year EU research programme, called Transcontainer, which involves 13 universities and research institutes and is partially funded by taxpayers in Britain and other EU countries, says that it is developing the technology to try to "reduce significantly" the spread of GM genes to conventional and organic crops.

Such contamination - long denied and downplayed by the industry and its supporters - is now accepted to be one of the main obstacles to the advance of modified crops.

ETC's report also says that if the new technology is developed, governments and regulators will insist that all GM crops will have to be engineered to be "zombies" to try to prevent contamination and in the process deliver farmers into complete dependence on the biotech companies.

It adds, however, that no containment strategy is foolproof and that the genes will inevitably spread anyway through pollen.

The Transcontainer project insists that it is "specifically targeted at European agriculture and European crops". But it admits that such technologies "may become a problem for farmers in developing countries."

ETC warns that if the technology is commercialised it will "ultimately be adopted indiscriminately" everywhere. It concludes: "A scenario in which farmers have to pay for a chemical to restore seed viability creates a new perpetual monopoly for the seed industry."

Article from: http://environment.independent.co.uk/lifestyle/article2666422.ece

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