Ministers are trying to scrap an international agreement banning the world's most controversial genetic modification of crops, grimly nicknamed "terminator technology", a move which threatens to increase hunger in the Third World.
Their plans, unveiled in a new official document buried in a government website, will cause outrage among environmentalists and hunger campaigners. Michael Meacher, who took a lead as environment minister in negotiating the ban six years ago, has written Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, to object.
The Government is to push for terminator crops to be considered for approval on a "case-by-case basis" at two meetings this month; its position closely mirrors the stance of the United States and other GM-promoting countries.
Terminator technology, so abominated even Monsanto will not develop it, would stop hundreds of millions of poor farmers from saving seeds from their crops for resowing for the following harvest, forcing them to buy new ones from biotech companies every year. More than 1.4 billion poor Third World farmers and their families pursue the age-old practice.
The technique is officially known as genetic use restriction technology (Gurt), making crops produce sterile seeds. It could be applied to any crop, including maize and rice, widely grown in developing countries.
The UK working group on terminator technology, a coalition of 10 British environment and development groups, says: "It could destroy traditional farming methods, damage farmers' livelihoods and threaten food security, particularly in developing countries."
In 2000, the world's governments imposed a de facto moratorium on developing, or even testing, the technology under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, an agreement largely brokered by Britain under Mr Meacher's leadership. But pro-GM nations such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, largely orchestrated by the US, have been pressing for the moratorium to be lifted, and for Gurt crops to be approved after "case-by-case risk assessment".
They, and biotech companies, claim the technology is a green solution to a serious drawback of GM crops, the way their genes spread, through pollen, to create superweeds and contaminate conventional and organic crops. But environmentalists say this is an illusion because terminator plants will still produce pollen, and their genes would pose a particular hazard by threatening to make non-GM sterile as well.
Yet ministers have refused to meet environmental groups to discuss their policy and failed publicise their position, posted two weeks ago on the website of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
Britain will be pushing for this approach first at a meeting of EU ministers on Thursday, then at a meeting of the convention in Brazil in two weeks. Mr Meacher said: "For the first time in the history of the world, farmers would be stopped from using their own seeds. This would undermine food production and cause starvation."
How it works: Sowing the seeds of starvation
Gurts may be an ugly acronym, but environmentalists believe that the genetic use restrictions technologies they stand for are even uglier. There are two types:
v-GURTS, called terminator technology. Developed by the US Department of Agriculture and the Delta Pine and Land Co, it makes seeds sterile so they cannot be cropped and resown. Before they are sold, seeds are treated with a compound which activates a gene introduced into the plant from bacteria. The gene allows the crop to be grown normally, but takes charge just as it becomes ready for harvesting and stops its seeds from manufacturing any of the protein it needs for germination.
t-GURTS, dubbed traitor technology. These are linked to a particular trait of a plant such as good growth , germination and other desirable characteristics. The genes governing these can be activated only when the plant is sprayed with a proprietory chemical, which is sold separately. Big biotech companies want to make the plants dependent on their own chemicals so they can make profits by selling first the seed, then the chemical needed to make it work properly.
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