How the CBD upheld moratorium on ‘Terminator Technology’

Environment: How the CBD upheld moratorium on ‘Terminator Technology’
(south-north development monitor #5996 Wednesday 29 March 2006)

Curitiba, 27 Mar (Lim Li Lin) — The issue of whether to continue the de
facto ban on the use of “Terminator Technology” (which renders seeds
sterile, thus preventing farmers from re-using seeds) dominated the first
week of negotiations at the 8th Conference of the Parties (COP 8) of the
Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) being held in Curitiba, Brazil,
from 20-31 March 2006.

A week of intense action, events, protests, and heated debate ended with
cheers and applause when the Chair of the Working Group on this issue
(Matthew Jebb from Ireland) announced the proposal that the de facto
moratorium on field and commercial releases of ‘Terminator Technology’ be
re-affirmed, and that the language that could have potentially weakened the
moratorium be deleted.

No Party objected to this, and the decision was thus adopted by the Working
Group. This draft decision by the Working Group will however have to be
adopted at the final plenary session at the end of COP 8 on 31 March.

The issue of ‘Terminator Technology’, which is one of the Genetic Use
Restriction Technologies (GURTs) in the language of the Convention, has been
an outstanding and very controversial issue. COP 8 is supposed to reach a
decision on this issue, based on the recommendations from both the 4th
Working Group on 8(j) and the 10th Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical
and Technological Advice (SBSTTA). The work of the 8(j) Working Group
concerns the knowledge, practices and innovations of indigenous and local

‘Terminator Technology’ was designed by the multinational seed industry and
the US Department of Agriculture to render seed sterile at harvest as a
‘Technology Protection System’, thus preventing farmers from saving and
re-using seed, as they have done for millennia, and forcing them to return
to the corporations to buy seeds for every planting season.

This poses a serious threat to the millions of farmers, particularly small
farmers, indigenous peoples and local communities in developing countries
who depend on saving and re-planting seed for their survival. Seed industry
profits could almost double if farmers were prevented from saving seed. This
could run to billions of extra dollars per year for the seed industry.

Furthermore, there would be adverse impacts on the practice and retention of
the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and farmers, their social,
cultural and spiritual values and practices, on food security, and the
protection of biodiversity around the world. In addition, the technology
could also cause serious biosafety hazards.

The main contention in the CBD process has been the opposition by many
governments, indigenous peoples, farmers and civil society groups to the
“case-by-case” language introduced in the recommendation from the 8(j)
Working Group.

The recommendation contains confusing language, which encourages further
research and studies on “potential impacts and other aspects of GURTs,
including their ecological, socioeconomic and cultural impacts on indigenous
and local communities, including on a case-by-case risk assessment basis
with respect to different categories of GURTs subject to the precautionary
approach”. A footnote referenced to the different categories of GURTs
indicates that “this is meant to be with respect to different variations
within different categories of GURTs”.

In addition, COP 8 should determine the scope of the mandate of its bodies
relating to GURTs.

The “case-by-case” language could be interpreted as undermining the existing
de facto moratorium on field and commercial releases of ‘Terminator
Technology’, even though the 8(j) recommendation also reaffirms decision COP
V/5 which articulates the de facto moratorium. “Case-by-case risk
assessment” would have potentially opened the door to field trials, and
clearly the notion itself does not square with the notion of a moratorium,
and the 2 concepts appear to be in direct conflict.

Opposition to the “case-by-case” language also reflects the concern that
GURTs would be regulated in the same was as other GMOs, on a case-by-case
basis, and socioeconomic assessment would only be considered in
decision-making, and not as part of “risk assessment”. This is the more
common approach in existing regulatory regimes for GMOs, especially in
developed countries.

During the week, representatives from NGOs, civil society organizations,
farmers’ organizations, indigenous peoples, and even some government
delegates had been wearing stickers saying “Ban Terminator” and “Case by
Case = Coffin by Coffin”.

Protests and demonstrations were held throughout the week, outside the
convention centre, and also in the Working Group meeting. Outside the
convention centre, noisy and spirited demonstrations by La Via Campesina, an
international peasants’ movement, the Brazilian Landless Peoples’ Movement
and other civil society groups took place almost daily. Posters bearing
slogans such as “Suicide Seeds are Homicide Seeds” and “Terminate
Terminator” were held up by the protestors and were also plastered in many
places around the convention centre.

A group of women farmers staged a protest during one of the Working Group
sessions, calmly walking to the front of the room, while the Working Group
was in session. They carried a sign that read “Terminator: the Genocide

Over 500 organisations from 55 countries have called upon governments to ban
‘Terminator Technology’. Protests have also been held outside Brazil, for
example, in Canada and in India, where half a million signatures were
submitted to the Prime Minister of India calling on him to maintain India’s
ban on ‘Terminator Technology’. 107 Italian scientists appealed to their
Minister to ban ‘Terminator Technology’ in their country and to support an
international ban at the CBD.

On 17 March, the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution
urging European delegates at COP 8 to uphold the existing moratorium, and
reject the “case-by-case” clause.

At the opening of COP 8, the Governor of Parana (the state where the
conference is being held), Roberto Requiao, condemned ‘Terminator
Technology’. He said, “Suicide seeds are the next step in the transnational
industry’s strategy to control the production and commercial use of seeds.
It is one more step by transnational industry to obtain total control over
the production of the grain.”

When the issue was opened for discussion, Argentina spoke in favour of
deleting paragraph 2(b) which is the paragraph that contains the
controversial “case-by-case” language. This surprised a number of observers,
as Argentina is one of the major GM exporting countries, and is well known
for its pro-GM position. But recently, Argentina has been fighting a
protracted battle with Monsanto, which has been blocking shipments of its GM
soya shipped to Europe and taking lawsuits to try to collect royalties on
its harvested GM soya.

This was followed by an intervention by Malaysia, speaking on behalf of the
G77 and China. The delegate from Malaysia stated that the G77 and China
believed that GURTs could have “far-reaching and negative impacts on
farmers, indigenous peoples and local communities- particularly on their
traditional knowledge, innovations and practices”.

He said that “we are concerned that GURTs technologies could introduce
multiple hazards for farmers, indigenous peoples, biodiversity and food
security, especially related to traditional seed-saving practices. This
could well pose an irreparable threat to the reportedly 1.4 billion people
worldwide who rely on farm-saved seeds for production, and indeed, their
very survival”.

He referred to paragraph 2(b)’s “innocuous reference to ‘case-by-case’ risk
assessment” which would potentially undermine the de facto moratorium of the
CBD, instead of re-affirming it, and that this would be “clearly

He asked for the retention of the language re-affirming the de facto
moratorium, and that paragraph 2(b) be deleted in its entirety. He concluded
by saying that “in short paragraph 2(b) is not to be”, amidst much laughter
and applause.

Norway spoke next, supporting the position of the G77 and China, and
requesting the deletion of paragraph 2 (b).

The Chair of the Working Group, in an attempt to limit a long and protracted
discussion on this issue, then asked any three Parties who were in favour of
retaining paragraph 2 (b) to speak. New Zealand, Australia and Switzerland
then spoke in favour of retaining the paragraph. Canada also supports this
position, and was the country that first tried to undermine the moratorium
at a SBSTTA meeting last year.

Switzerland felt compelled to explain that even through it has a 5-year
legislative moratorium on commercial releases of GMOs, which bans the use of
GMOs in Swiss agriculture, this did not include GMOs imported for food,
animal feed and for processing, research in contained use and field trials,
and that this therefore did not conflict with its position in favour of a
“case by case risk assessment” of ‘Terminator Technology’.

The Chair then opened the floor to any non-Parties and observers who were in
favour of deleting paragraph 2 (b). The representative from the
International Plant Genetic Resource Institute (IPGRI) which is part of the
Consultative Group of International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) informed
the Working Group that in 1998, a statement on biotechnology by the
international centres supported by the CGIAR stated that they would not
incorporate Terminator Technology into their breeding material.

Two indigenous peoples’ groups, a representative of a small farming
community in Peru, an NGO representative from the Ban Terminator campaign,
and a representative from the Youth caucus spoke out strongly against
Terminator Technology and the negative impacts it would have on farmers,
indigenous people, local communities, biodiversity, food security and
livelihoods and requested that the paragraph be deleted.

The indigenous peoples’ representatives spoke about ‘Terminator Technology’
violating their rights and emphatically rejected it. They vowed to fight
with all their strength to block the use of ‘Terminator Technology’, and
labelled it ‘genocidal in nature’. They appealed to the Parties to respect
their position, as they simply wanted to live in dignity.

The Youth representative’s plea resonated with the idealism of young people
unaccustomed to inter-governmental negotiations. She said that “We cannot
understand why a Convention whose aim is to protect biodiversity is even
considering allowing the testing of a technology that by definition strives
to do the opposite. The aim of GURTs is to prevent the reproduction of an
organism. This is in direct conflict with the objectives of the CBD.

“There is no scientific evidence that this technology should or can be
benignly released into a dynamic living ecosystem, and the potential
negative social impacts on humanity are appalling. This is our future, and
we refuse to accept these risks We answer your call using not our wallets
and a short-sighted economic greed, but rather with our minds, our logic,
and our hearts.”

The Chair then opened the floor to any non-Parties and observers who would
like to speak in favour of retaining paragraph 2 (b). A representative from
the Foundation for Public Research and Regulation (PRRI) spoke first,
followed by the US (a non-Party to the CBD), and then a representative from
industry. They all spoke in favour of Terminator Technology, and highlighted
potential benefits.

There were many murmurs among observers and delegates that the clear
alignment of the PRRI with the US and industry spoke volumes about their
vested interests and industry links. The PRRI, which has been newly set up,
purports to represent public sector researchers, and has been promoting
pro-GM views and advocating lax regulatory standards for public researchers
at the meetings of the Biosafety Protocol, the CBD and the Aarhus
Convention. Most of the PRRI representatives present at these meetings are
from developing countries, and their position is in direct conflict with
their governments’ position at these meetings.

The Chair then informed the Working Group that he would like the Parties who
would like to retain paragraph 2 (b) to have an informal consultation on the
future process with regards to GURTs as COP 8 is supposed to determine the
scope of the mandate of its bodies relating to GURTs.

However, the Parties did not return with a proposal on this, and there
seemed to be growing consensus towards simply adopting the SBSTTA part of
the text, and deleting the 8(j) part of the text, thus deleting the
paragraph containing the “case-by-case” language.

The next morning, upon consultation with a number of Parties, the Chair
announced the proposal that only the SBSTTA part of the text be adopted. In
addition, the words “within the mandate of decision V/5 section III,” would
be included in a paragraph, in between the words “continue to undertake
further research,” and “on the impacts of GURTs, including their ecological,
social, economic and cultural impacts, particularly on indigenous and local

This addition was proposed by Malaysia, as India had, in the meeting of the
Like Minded Mega-diverse Countries’ meeting, raised the issue that without
this qualification, this paragraph in the SBSTTA text could also possibly
undermine the de facto moratorium, as research on ecological impacts would
probably necessitate field trials. This may have been the reason why the
Parties who were in favour of the “case-by-case” language had not put up
much resistance to deleting the 8(j) text altogether.

(However, the issue of GURTs may still be a recurring controversy in the
CBD, if countries and industry are determined to undermine the moratorium.
The current SBSTTA text, if adopted by the COP as it stands still includes
language that could potentially be problematic – “continue to disseminate
the results of studies on the potential environmental (e. g. risk
assessment), socioeconomic and cultural impacts of GURTs .” The inclusion of
risk assessment as an example could still imply a case-by-case scenario.
Nevertheless, this formulation is much weaker, and the de facto moratorium
and its mandate are clearly reaffirmed.)

The decision of the Working Group was thus adopted, as no Party objected to
the Chair’s proposal, and the final adoption is expected to take place at
the plenary at the end of COP 8 this coming Friday. +

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