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Saying no to sterile seeds (13 Jun 2006)

This year saw a victory in the long fight against Terminator technology, when a groundswell of global opinion shored up the UN moratorium on sterile seeds. Progressio coordinates the UK Working Group on Terminator Technology that led the UK campaign.

'It has been very encouraging to see how people's outrage turned to action in fighting Terminator technology,' says Progressio's Environment Advocacy Coordinator Elisabet Lopez. When Australia, Canada and New Zealand tried to weaken the 2000 global moratorium on genetically-engineered sterile seeds in January 2006, 'people from environmental to faith groups, from young people to MPs, were determined to stop them', she says.
In 2005 several environment and development NGOs  formed the UK working group on Terminator technology to support the existing global coalition of farmers, civil society, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and indigenous people already fighting Terminator technology. As a result of the global campaign, the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) in March 2006 reinforced its de facto moratorium on Terminator seeds.
Terminator technology is the genetic modification of plants to make them produce sterile seeds. The World Council of Churches has strongly condemned the practice. 'Applying technology to design sterile seeds turns life, which is a gift from God, into a commodity,' says general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia. 'Preventing farmers from re-planting saved seed will increase economic injustice all over the world and add to the burdens of those already living in hardship.'

The UK campaign swung into action in August 2005 in anticipation of the 8th Conference of the Parties (COP8) of the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) meeting in March 2006 where the issue was to be addressed. A broad coalition of agencies came together in action: the UK Food Group, Progressio (formerly CIIR), Friends of the Earth, GM Freeze, GeneWatch UK, The Gaia Foundation, IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development), Econexus, Seeds and Munlochy GM Vigil.

The coalition distributed 113,000 leaflets to their members, the media and the public - with public demand quickly outstripping supply. They held a parliamentary briefing that led to a parliamentary debate, and lobbied for an Early Day Motion (a motion tabled by an MP calling for a debate) urging the UK government to defend the CBD moratorium. An EDM (1300) was tabled by Lib Dem Andrew George MP and attracted huge cross-party backing with 247 signatures, thanks to strong support from the public. The coalition held meetings with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the then Environment minister Jim Knight MP, and made suggestions to the European Parliament resolution on Terminator for the 8th Conference of the Parties.

In the lead up to the 8th Conference of the Parties (COP8), the UK Working Group on Terminator Technology were not sure that DEFRA would give its full support for the CBD moratorium, since their policy on GMOs (genetically modified organisms) stated that Terminator technology applications would be dealt with like any other GMOs, namely on a case-by-case basis. However when the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) met in Curitiba, Brazil from 20 to 31 March, they rejected moves to allow case-by-case assessment. The CBD not only re-affirmed the moratorium on Terminator technology, but also strengthened it by making it clear that any future research would need to be conducted within the bounds of the moratorium.

It was welcome news for the thousands of farmers who had protested daily outside the CBD meeting. 'This is a momentous day for the 1,4 billion people worldwide who depend on farmer-saved seeds,' says Francisca Rodriguez of Via Campesina, a global movement of peasant farmers, 'Terminator seeds are a weapon of mass destruction and an assault on our food sovereignty.'

The European Patent Office granted a patent for Terminator technology to the US seed corporation Delta & Pine Land and the US Department of Agriculture on 5 October 2005, and other corporations have obtained patents for their versions of Terminator technology. 'At the moment, the technology is not ready. It is still in laboratories and greenhouses. But sometime soon - maybe in two, five or 10 years time - it will be put forward for field-testing,' says Elisabet Lopez. 'It is essential that every government interprets the CBD decision on Terminator to mean that experimental or commercial Terminator applications cannot be considered until global scientific and socio-economic assessments have shown them to be safe for people and the environment. It is also essential that EU and UK legislation on GMOs is changed to incorporate the CBD moratorium, acknowledge the very specific and different nature of Terminator technology and make socio-economic assessments mandatory'.