Terminator Technology

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, March 26, 1999

We grow a small patch of Longfellow Flint Corn every year. This beautiful drying corn, with ears almost one foot long, has eight rows of nicely-rounded, golden-orange kernels which we grind to make cornbread and polenta.

Each year we save seed from 30 choice ears for replanting. We've been doing this for about four years, since we got the original kernels from ethno-botanist Mel Bristol. He has been growing Longfellow Flint Corn on Bloomingfields Farm in Gaylordsville, Connecticut, for nearly two decades. Over that time, he has saved seeds from ears with tightly wrapped leaves at the tips in order to minimize crow damage. There is variability within the overall genetic stability of this corn which allows a careful grower to gradually select for traits that are important locally. To be successful, this process requires knowledge and skill, as well as at least 200 plants which can be isolated from other wind-blown corn pollen.

Mel tells me that Longfellow Flint is the same corn that the Native Americans were growing widely over this part of the continent before the Europeans invaded. Apparently, many of the river bottom lands that grow corn today were cleared and cultivated six hundred years ago.

Growers have been selectively saving seeds from the biggest, tastiest and most reliable ears of corn for about 5,000 years, beginning in Mexico with something like "teocinte" whose cob is about the size of the eraser on a pencil. Year after year, generation after generation, century after century, growers selected among this corn's natural variations in specific ecosystems. Unlike maple trees and tomato plants, corn will not self seed. It must be harvested, saved and planted again by humans. Apparently, the Native Americans used great care in this process.

Growing Longfellow Flint Corn connects us not only to last year's crop and to our friend Mel and his work, but also to countless generations of other careful growers. Their skill and devotion, born of respect and the will to survive, are responsible for turning that small cob into beautiful ears, and for passing this gift on to future generations.

Hybrid corn, which has to be newly created from two different parents each year, has already broken this age-old connection for many large growers. Now they are connected to the seed company instead. For other important crops, however, and especially for the world's poorer growers, saving the best seeds for replanting makes both agronomic and economic sense.

This explains why millions of growers around the world are very concerned about the prospect of the so-called "Terminator Technology." This is the name given to a genetic engineering technique which, in effect, turns off the germination switch in future generations of seeds. A special treatment allows the first generation to grow, but seeds it produces will not germinate. A grower must buy next year's supply from the seed company. This technology was first developed with our tax dollars by the USDA working with a cotton seed company. That company was recently purchased by Monsanto, one of the planet's most aggressive promoters of agricultural biotechnology. Monsanto currently engineers cotton, soy and canola seeds to be sales tools for its herbicide, and puts a biological pesticide inside corn, potatoes and cotton, among other things. Its success in getting these novel varieties (dubbed "Frankenfoods" by critics) planted on a large portion of this country's farms and its aggressive legal tactics against farmers, make its acquisition and promotion of "Terminator Technology" especially worrisome.

There are many unanswered questions about genetically-engineered crops and food. What are their long-term effects on human and ecosystem health? How fast will resistance to herbicides and internal pesticides develop in weeds and insects? How much will these novel traits cross with wild or cultivated relatives and what dangers are involved if and when they do? Recent reports from England and Canada suggest some serious problems in these areas.

Inserting a suicide gene in seeds for the narrow interest of corporate profit is disrespectful to the people and processes which have allowed humans to live here for the last 10,000 years. It is simply not a good idea for our long-term survival.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1999 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.