The Common Good
May-June 1999

Terminate This!

by Leigh Hauter | May-June 1999

Sterile seeds help corporations build a food monopoly.

There is something about standing in the middle of a field after most of the crops have been taken in that invites meditation. One afternoon last fall I was out collecting seeds in the field where we grow vegetables for our community vegetable project. It was one of those bright sunny days, with the leaves in full color and the air cool and crisp. Each year my wife and I plant extra crops to use for seeds the following year, and standing there in the rows of broccoli, the full impact of the new world order came home to me, the world order that is reshaping our food supply.

The face of farming is rapidly changing. This has been happening for the past several decades, but like everything else, it is accelerating faster and faster. Many of these changes aren’t in the interest of people or communities. The imminent revolution in seed production is a prime example of what is happening in almost every aspect of farming. For thousands of years farmers have grown their own seeds. But this isn’t the way that Monsanto, the World Bank, and the giant food-distribution corporations envision the future. Instead, they see genetically engineered seeds and a particularly nasty new development people have been calling "terminator" technology.

Terminator technology is an aspect of the new world order of agriculture that—unless people stand up and take notice—will be one of the methods used to control the world’s food supply in the next few years. The U.S. government has been funding research into terminator technology, which could make it impossible for farmers to grow their own seeds. Plant species that have been manipulated this way will be sterile. The seeds produced by the crops will not grow. There is only one purpose for terminator technology: maximizing profits. And right now the U.S. government is on the verge of giving this ability to Monsanto, a corporation rapidly becoming the world’s largest seed company with frightening monopolistic powers.

This is the way it works: Monsanto markets a seed that has been genetically altered with the terminator technology. The first year the seeds might be given away or offered at a special rate. Perhaps the corporation will encourage the agriculture agencies of Third World countries to push these seeds on the farmers in much the same ways that products such as infant formula have been marketed in the past: through bribes to government officials, advertising campaigns, direct sales, or any number of other proven techniques.

The marketing of seeds modified with terminator technology will have devastating effects the world over. Once these sterile seeds are in use, the farmers have no other choice but to continue to buy seeds. This enables transnational corporations to control and commodify something that until now was relatively free or inexpensive. This is the future of our food system as envisioned by powerful interests.

One of these interests, the World Bank, recently sent a survey to scientists, government officials, NGOs, and farmers with a number of biased questions on genetic engineering. The survey was full of questions such as, "Since the world’s population will double in the next 20 years, should we let people starve or should we use genetically engineered seeds to increase food production?"

Farmers and communities growing their own seeds and raising their own food contributes to the kind of community we would all like to live in, a caring community not primarily worried about turning everything in our lives into a profit. To create the communities we want to live in, we are going to have to confront the powerful interests that want to commodify our food and water and lives, and deny them the ability to control our future and that of our children. To do this, we need to educate ourselves and our communities, and demand that merchants disclose which foods are genetically modified. We’ll need to make sure that before genetically modified food is fed to our children in school, it is adequately tested and proven safe. And better yet, we’ll need to create our own sustainable food systems.

As I stood out in the field on that fall afternoon, I knew that we better begin to work hard to create the world we want, because the forces of greed and profit are busily working toward fulfillment of their own vision.

—Leigh Hauter

LEIGH HAUTER is an organic vegetable farmer in The Plains, Virginia.

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