When are the knee-jerk opponents of genetically modified crops going to realize that genetic use restriction technologies (GURTs) are their friends?1
The latest gusher of drivel comes from the International Institute for Environment and Development, which really ought to know better. In a press release designed to ride the intense interest swirling aound the World Seed Conference, which opened at FAO yesterday, IIED “researchers” point out that:
in order to continue conserving and adapting their varieties, farmers also need to be allowed to freely save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds. Technologies which restrict these customary rights — namely Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTS) — pose a very serious threat to genetic diversity, seed quality and the livelihoods of poor farmers.
New readers (and IIED researchers) should start here. GURTs (there are a couple of different kinds) are bits of DNA that are intended to prevent any seed that contains them from germinating and growing.
So that farmers cannot save their own seeds.
Farmers who choose to buy the seeds that contained the GURTs because they think that those seeds offer them valuable advantages over other seeds.
Because a company invested a sackload of money in developing a variety. So the company is going to do two things to recoup its investment, and more. It must persuade farmers to buy the seed. And it must stop everyone else from making use of the investment without paying for it.
So far, note, this is nothing to do with GURTs, which in any case are not currently permitted in seed anywhere. It is one good reason why seed companies like to produce F1 hybrids. The seeds of an F1 hybrid are no good to the farmer who wants the same performance from the seeds she saved as from the seeds she paid for. In that sense, GURTs are a logical extension of the desire of seed breeding companies to protect their investment. You can save the seeds of an F1, but those F2 seeds are not a replica of the F1. The company wins, although canny breeders can easily dehybridize the hybrids, and even farmers can benefit from the flow of interesting genes into their crops.
Now, whereas F1 hybrids produce pollen that can indeed pollute the seeds of a neighbouring farmer exercising her right to freely save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed, GURTs actually prevent this kind of pollution. Any seed fertilized by pollen from a GURTed plant is effectively dead.
GURTs thus stop any characters bred into a GMO from being transferred into another variety of the same crop and into the crop’s wild relatives.
So, IIED, remind me, please: why is that a bad thing?
Does it stop the farmer saving seeds? On the contrary, it makes life easier, because the farmer does not have to worry about genetic pollution. She can, of course, still take advantage of good pollution, or introgression, if she wants to.
Does it stop her using farm-saved seed? No, how could it, when any polluted seeds are going to fail to grow. It makes using the farm-saved seed more secure.
Can she still exchange and sell farm-saved seed? You bet, and not only that, but her customers and swap-partners will be grateful that her seeds cannot possibly be polluted.
Opponents of GURTs seem to think that massive influxes of foreign pollen are the norm. They’re not. And I certainly wouldn’t want to accept, even as a gift, seed from someone who knew so little about farming and seed saving that they couldn’t even maintain their own varieties. Cross pollination from a different field is a fascinating and rare source of diversity in farmers’ fields, not the norm. GURTs pose absolutely no threat to farm-saved seed. In fact, I believe that they can enhance genetic diversity (by maintaining the separation between varieties), improve seed quality (for the same reasons) and have no impact at all on the livelihoods of poor farmers.
I hold no brief for or against GMOs, though I do think they have yet to prove themselves in the areas where they make the loudest claims. This is not about GMOs. It is about honesty. Any opponent of GMOs, however good the rest of their arguments might be, immediately loses my respect if they are also against GURTs.