“Terminator technology” or “suicide seeds” coin their name from the genetic use restriction technology (GURT) which caused controversy when it was used to develop plants that yield sterile seeds. Although not yet commercialised, biotech companies claim the innovation protects intellectual property and prevents the escape of modified genes. However, others are viewing this as an unethical method of controlling the availability of engineered crops in the agricultural community.
Is this an attempt to monopolise the world’s food supply? Or the next step in advancing crop production?
Cream of the Crop
Having the ability to produce a commodity that is technologically advanced compared to rivals is the basis of competitive business. Industrial development is often resource intensive, but this is usually justified by the unique product that the company can offer. However, the agricultural industry is left hung out to dry as consumers are able to regenerate seeds indefinitely, leaving companies with no control over their product.
Shouldn’t you have the right to your own design?
Terminator technology prevents unauthorised repeated cropping and sowing of patented seeds, allowing for direct product sales. This would provide an incentive for reinvestment into R&D, promoting competitiveness and industry advancements, including improved quality of food production as well as special vaccine production and diagnostic tool technology which GURT has been linked to.
On the surface, it appears that these corporations are adopting an egoistic approach which could be considered ethical as they are only acting to ensure profits which is in their best interests; they are a business after all. However, it can also be argued from a utilitarian perspective that the aforementioned technological advancements actually have the potential to benefit the future of humanity, thereby bringing a greater degree of happiness to the world.
Are we putting a ban on progression?
Terminator technology would be applied to existing genetically modified (GM) crops which are engineered to have better yields, disease and pest resistance etc. These crops are essential to the problem of feeding the ever increasing global population. However, they contain genes that would not be present in wild types – transgenes. There is concern that these genes may ‘leak’ into the environment through cross-pollination, wreaking havoc upon nature. Terminator seeds have the potential to prevent this, by ceasing crops’ ability to reproduce.
The GM movement has always raised issues concerning environmental ethics to which terminator technology can provide solutions for. From an anthropocentric perspective, (the view that the environment has only instrumental value for humanity) terminator seeds will prevent damaging effects to the environment which is in our own interests as future generations will inherit a healthier world. Even from a biocentric point of view, (the belief that the environment has its own intrinsic value) terminator seeds only serve to protect it by preventing transgene escape. GM crops are an already established part of agriculture and terminator technology only strives to make such crops eco-friendly.
The central counter argument that stems from this debate is the effect upon farmers, especially those in developing countries. Traditionally, these farmers would reserve a portion of seeds for growth the following year but instead, the use of terminator seeds will force them into dependency upon seed companies, having to rebuy the same stock year in, year out. Proponents of the debate think this is fair – biotech companies need to protect their investment, right?
Poor farmers simply cannot afford to live like this!
The issue is that most farmers from developing countries cannot afford annual seed purchases meaning that their income and thus welfare and social security are impacted as a consequence. By exploring a utilitarianism framework, it is evident the no-harm principle is violated, as the act of forcing annual purchases is detrimental to farmer happiness in the long run.
You might think the obvious answer would be for farmers to avoid buying from seed companies, however this would be detrimental to themselves. Poor farmers often live in areas with extreme climates and severe pest problems and therefore by choosing not to buy industrial seeds, they are opting out of the resilience benefits that make GM seeds so useful in the first place.
Is it fair to restrict poor farmers from accessing genetically superior crops, the people who arguably need them the most?
From a deontological perspective, the answer is no. Kant believed that the action itself is important in ethics, not just the outcome. By this logic, you cannot justify high prices which deny poor farmers the best seeds, who would benefit from them the most, even if the consequences mean greater profits and reinvestment into R&D. It’s about respect for each and every human, not just the masses.
According to the UN, the right to food is a basic universal human right. Handing over control of this right, a necessity to life, to giant companies is a mistake we cannot afford to make. We cannot allow the food market to be monopolised in this manner as it would give corporations a frightening amount of power, who may prioritise profits over the security of the global food supply.
The essence of terminator technology also begs the question: are the proprietors “playing God?”. From a religious perspective applying ethical absolutism – interfering with the sanctity of life is morally wrong. However, regardless of faith, it could be believed that the nature of programming life to terminate itself is twisted and wholly unnatural.
Food For Thought
The potential risks need to be fully assessed before a final verdict can be made. In the meantime, the topic remains divisive: to what extent can the strive for economic and technological progress be regarded above the questionable methods and repercussions on the lives of others?