CURITIBA, Brazil -
On Tuesday morning, as delegates arrived at the conference venue, they faced more than 100 peasant and indigenous rights activists at the main gates staging a demonstration in support of a complete ban on the sale and use of Terminator seeds, officially known as Genetic Use Restriction Technology.
"These seeds are killed seeds," the crowd shouted as they watched delegates arrive in cars and buses.
"Terminate the Terminator", the activists chanted in unison, while demanding tough laws against field testing and sale of so-called "Terminator" technology, which refers to plants that have had their genes altered so that they render sterile seeds at harvest. Because of this trait, some activists call Terminator products "suicide seeds".
The U.N. Convention on Biodiversity had adopted a moratorium on field testing and commercialisation of Terminator technology in 2000. But opponents fear that such seeds are likely to be marketed soon unless governments impose a blanket ban.
Currently, the product is being tested in greenhouses throughout the United States. Developed by multinational agribusiness firms and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Terminator has the potential to keep small-scale farmers from saving or replanting seeds from one growing season to another, activists say.
"Somebody is trying to befool me as a farmer," said Clement Chipokolo of the African Biodiversity Network, who came here all the way from Zambia. "In my culture we don't buy seeds. We save them. But now somebody is trying to bring agricultural slavery for us."
The industry claims that it will enhance biodiversity and its high cost is more than compensated for by improved crop yield and quality. But opponents argue that Terminator would not only undermine traditional knowledge and innovation, but would add to the economic burden of poor peasants who depend on saved seeds.
"It's the neutron bomb of biotechnology," said Hope Shand of the Canada-based Action Group for Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC), about Terminator. "It is designed to maximise profits for the biotech industry because farmers will be forced to buy seeds every year."
Currently, the number of small farmers around the world is estimated to be over one billion.
The biotech industry's interest in promoting Terminator is not hard to understand because each year the global commercial seed market brings in about 23 billion dollars in revenue, according to independent trade experts who estimate that if farmers were forced to buy new seeds at each planting, the global market would be worth over 45 billion dollars.
ETC researchers estimate that if allowed to sell Terminator seeds, the industry will earn at least an additional 10 billion dollars from farmers in developing countries. They say that Brazilian farmers will have to pay no less than 500 million dollars a year to buy soybean seeds, while the purchase of seeds for wheat and cotton crops will cost peasants in Pakistan more than 120 million dollars a year.
Currently, about 80 percent of farmers in both Brazil and Pakistan grow crops based on saved seeds from previous harvests.
Many governments in the developing world have so far resisted pressure from the U.S. government and industry, but some governments in the industrialised world are trying to influence the outcome of the negotiations in favour of the industry, say activists closely watching the talks here.
Last year, the government of Brazil -- the world's fifth most populous country and a major agricultural producer -- passed a law prohibiting the use, registration, patenting and licensing of modified seeds. India, a predominantly agrarian nation and home to one billion people, has done the same.
Yet indications are that rich countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand will side with the U.S. and the biotech industry during the two weeks of negotiations on the Convention on Biodiversity, which has drawn delegates from 188 countries. The Australian delegation is reportedly trying to introduce language that would undermine efforts to keep the U.N. moratorium on field testing and commercialisation of modified seeds intact.
Last January, when delegates to the Convention on Biodiversity met in Spain, the Australians recommended that Terminator technology be studied on a "case-by-case risk assessment basis", a turning point in negotiations that activists fear has the potential to undermine the U.N. moratorium.
"It is an immoral technology. It's anti-farmer," Shand said. "We don't need any more studies. It must be banned."
Francisco Rodriguez Anamuri of Compesina (a women and indigenous people's group in Chile) added: "It's not about Monsanto. It's about our food security. You don't have food security if you don't have seeds."
Monsanto, the U.S.-based biotech giant, has repeatedly come under attack from environmental and indigenous right groups for its aggressive research and marketing of genetically modified crops. Though it had pledged in the past not to commercialise Terminator, Monsanto says it seeks to study "the risks and benefits of this technology on case-by-case basis".
Some countries have agreed with the industry that genetic modifications can play a significant role in fighting hunger at negligible risk to the environment. But a 100-page study released in January by Friends of the Earth concludes that only a handful of countries have introduced and increased the use of genetically modified crops.
Titled "Who Benefits from GM Crops?", the report says that after 10 years of GM crop cultivation, more than 80 percent of the area sown with biotech crops is still concentrated in only three countries: the United States, Argentina and Canada.
In other countries -- including Brazil and Paraguay -- GM crops were planted illegally, and in Indonesia, they were planted after government officials were bribed, FoE said.
On the debate surrounding the use and sale of Terminator seeds, a senior U.N. official said indications are that delegates might reach a consensus by the end of the meeting next week.
"For six years there has been a deadlock," Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the Convention on Biodiversity, told IPS Monday. "I think the decision could likely be taken at this meeting."
Copyright © 2006 IPS-Inter Press Service