The 12,000-year-old practice in which farm families save their best seed from one year's harvest for the next season's planting may be coming to an end by the year 2000. In March 1998, Delta & Pine Land Co. and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced they had received a US patent on a new genetic technology designed to prevent unauthorized seed-saving by farmers.
The patented technology enables a seed company to genetically alter seed so that the plants that grow from it are sterile; farmers cannot use their seeds. The patent is broad, applying to plants and seeds of all species, including both transgenic (genetically engineered) and conventionally-bred seeds. The developers of the new technology say that their technique to prevent seed-saving is still in the product development stage, and is now being tested on cotton and tobacco. They hope to have a product on the market sometime after the year 2000.
Over the last four years, USDA researchers claim to have spent nearly $190,000 to support research on what the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) calls "Terminator" seed technology. Delta & Pine Land, the seed industry collaborator, devoted $275,000 of in-house expenses and contributed an additional $255,000 to the joint research. According to a USDA spokesperson, Delta & Pine Land Co. has the option to exclusively license the jointly developed patented technology.
The USDA's Willard Phelps explained that the goal is "to increase the value of proprietary seed owned by US seed companies and to open up new markets in second and third world countries."
USDA molecular biologist Melvin J. Oliver, the primary inventor of the technology, explained why the US developed a technology that prohibits farmers from saving seeds: "Our mission is to protect US agriculture and to make us competitive in the face of foreign competition. Without this, there is no way of protecting the patented seed technology."