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FACT SHEET - WHY THE USDA'S TECHNOLOGY PROTECTION SYSTEM (AKA 'TERMINATOR')
June 7, 2000 at http://www.ars.usda.gov/whatsnew.htm
On March 3, 1998, U.S. patent 5,723,765 was awarded to the Agricultural
Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA-ARS) and to the
Delta and Pine Land Co., a major cotton seed supplier in the U.S.
This patent, entitled "Control of Plant
Gene Expression," describes a new concept that would permit external
control of when a gene
functions. One application has been termed the technology protection system
(TPS; sometimes called the "Terminator"), a genetic modification that allows
a normal crop of an improved plant variety to be produced but prevents
germination of its progeny seeds. Since then the patent has received a
great deal of attention, both in terms of the possible benefits of the new
technology and also whether there is significant potential for harm.
What is the potential benefit to U.S. agriculture?
The germination control technology has two main purposes. First, it
protects specific plant varieties with genetically engineered desirable
traits from unauthorized regeneration and ensures benefits sharing for those
who accomplished the improvements. The ability to protect intellectual
property under the legal framework in the U.S. and other countries allows
patenting of new and useful inventions, such as genetically engineered
plants. The TPS may enhance investment in the research to develop high-value
crop varieties, because companies will have more prospects for a fair return
on their investment. There is a strong parallel in the development of hybrid
Hybrids do not breed true, and thus the productive value of the hybrid is
largely lost after the first year. This revolutionary development of 70
years ago also required that farmers buy new seeds each year. The result is
that seed companies invested heavily in improving corn, which
has become a dominant American crop. The cost of seed to farmers has been
more than offset by the economic returns to them due to highly dependable
germination, improved crop yield, quality, and profitability.
Second, TPS provides a way to prevent the spread of genes introduced into
improved crops. Pollen from genetically engineered crop plants can
sometimes find its way
to other plants. There may be native plants that can hybridize with the crop
plant, and this pollen transfer could introduce new and unwanted traits into
the wild population. TPS solves this problem and eliminates a theoretical
biosafety concern over widespread use of genetically engineered crops.
Other potential uses of this technology have also been proposed such as
control of flowering of forage grasses and managing pest resistance
mechanisms in the plant. These applications are currently being investigated
by ARS laboratories.
What is the potential for direct harm to U.S. agriculture?
Research will be conducted to determine whether TPS pollen from one field
could be transferred to a neighboring field of non-engineered plants of the
same crop. If such an event occurred, this could prevent germination of some
portion of the seeds. But, TPS is intended to be deployed
only in self-pollinated crops, i.e., plants that pollinate themselves
instead of using pollen from other plants. If TPS is used as originally
intended, the risk from pollen transfer is extremely low. Self-pollinated
crops include rice, cotton, soybeans, and many others of importance to the
What is the potential for indirect harm?
Some constituent groups are concerned that this technology will allow seed
companies to overcharge farmers for seeds, because all seeds will be sterile
and no alternative sources will exist. To introduce TPS into a variety is
expensive and time-consuming. It is highly likely that companies would
introduce it into only a few varieties in which they have a heavy
investment, especially those that have been genetically engineered and
cannot be protected in any other way.
If the added value is not there to justify the cost of TPS-protected seed,
the farmer will substitute less expensive seed.
What is the current status of the technology?
The patent was awarded based on a demonstration of its efficacy in a
tobacco plant test system. Work is currently underway to introduce
the system into cotton for further
testing. We do not expect that TPS will be available for commercialization
before 2005. Other applications of the gene control system will not be
available until a later date.
Why was USDA-ARS involved in development of TPS?
The use of biotechnology to improve crop plants has tremendous potential
to improve agricultural productivity, but there are many barriers to
achieving that potential. Today, even though there are prominent examples of
insect-resistant corn, cotton, and potatoes and herbicide-tolerant soybeans,
biotechnology simply cannot be used for many crops. It is too
expensive to be used when the planted acreage is small. As a result, many
horticultural crops or other specialty crops are denied the benefits of
modern plant genetic improvements. TPS may allow an extension of the
benefits of biotechnology to crops that serve limited markets or unique
production systems. This potential impact is extremely broad and will
benefit many aspects of American agriculture. However, fundamental
biological research was needed
to provide a foundation for discovery of system to control plant gene
expression. ARS research, and the patent, actually deal with a system of
gene regulation that has numerous applications beyond
germination regulation. In addition to TPS, ARS sees many examples of the
new technology offering other opportunities to improve cropping systems and
benefit agriculture and farmer profitability. This fundamental research is
an appropriate role for ARS, which is the in-house research arm of the USDA.
Why did USDA-ARS partner with Delta and Pine Land Co. on the patent?
From the beginning, scientists of both organizations were jointly
responsible for conceiving the project, and doing follow up work. This means
that Delta and Pine and ARS would have been co-owners of any patented
research products regardless of how the patent was submitted. In order to
perfect this discovery, ARS and Delta and Pine negotiated a Cooperative
Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), which offers the company
the right of first
refusal to an exclusive license for the patent. The U.S. Technology Transfer
Act of 1986 requires that research agencies such as ARS offer this license
for discoveries made under CRADA collaborations.
What are the USDA-ARS plans at this point?
USDA has no plans to introduce TPS into any germplasm in our collections
or plant research programs. Our involvement has been to help develop the
technology, not to assist companies to use it. ARS is also committed to
making the technology as widely available as possible, so that its benefits
will accrue to all segments of society. Negotiations with Delta and Pine on
the licensing terms have focused on this need. ARS intends to do research on
other applications of this unique gene control discovery, but which are
unrelated to seed germination. When new applications are at the appropriate
stage of development, this technology will also be transferred to the
private sector for commercial application.
How will TPS affect agriculture in the developing world?
The primary use of TPS will be in the markets of developed nations, where
farmers have the technology and infrastructure to take maximum advantage of
high-value crop varieties. If subsistence farmers can support and develop a
seed industry that is able to supply locally adapted, high-tech varieties,
the use of TPS-containing seeds in the developing world is possible.
Will TPS force subsistence farmers to give up saving seeds?
No, it will not. The germplasm used by subsistence farmers is not the
target of this technology.
In fact, like ARS, the international research institutes that make up the
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), such as
the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, have announced
that they will continue to produce varieties without TPS.
These decisions reinforce that new germplasm will continue to be made
available for use by all, without restrictions imposed by TPS.
Will farmers in the developing world be denied access to genetically
engineered seeds because of TPS?
Seed companies have been reluctant to distribute high-value genetically
engineered seeds in countries that do not have a creditable system of patent
protection. As a result, most farmers in the developing world are currently
denied access to genetically engineered seeds. TPS may in fact allow
companies to begin distributing improved crops to those who want them.
Protecting unauthorized use of plant intellectual property would
assure the seed
companies of continued demand in these markets, and therefore stimulating
research for improved varieties in the future.
Although the farmers would have to purchase seed each year, their crops
would have improved productivity, health and quality that will repay the
investment cost many fold.
Has development of TPS departed significantly from research to improve
To the contrary, TPS represents a single step forward in a long and
elegant history of plant improvement for human use. Successes in plant
breeding, which allow Earth to carry its current population of more than six
billion people, have come through a series of individual advances,
most of which introduced a higher level of technology to agriculture than
before. Control of plant gene expression should be viewed as a tool that
will continue this longstanding trend toward technology by facilitating the
wider introduction of beneficial improvements into crops.
In that sense, it is part of a continuing evolution of modern improved
crops, rather than a revolution in technology. There should be a public
discussion of TPS and the potential benefits and detriments. At the end,
there must be public guidance, not on whether to shun technological advances
in crops, but how to manage them to the advantage of humankind.