Ever since humans started farming 10,000 years ago, they have followed a basic tenet: Save some of the harvest as seed for next year's crop. Saving seed shaped more-modern notions of savings and investment. "Eating one's seed corn" became, in America, a metaphor for desperation.
So when Mississippi-based Delta & Pine Land, the world's largest cottonseed company, announced in March a technology that could put an end to seed-saving, reaction was swift and negative. Farm groups in developing nations condemned it. One British newspaper carried the headline: "Terminator seeds threaten a barren future for farmers."
The so-called "terminator" seeds are stirring deep concerns that a handful of global corporations will use their control over biotechnology to ensure profits for themselves, whatever the impact on agriculture. Given the increasing reliance of public plant-breeding programs on private support, the future looks especially ominous, say agriculture experts.
"You're going to have control of the research agenda held by three or four companies," says Carl Eibl, who heads biotech pioneer Mycogen. "When you have that kind of concentration of technology and that kind of concentration of breeding programs, what's the target [of the research]? Do you have a target that will attack famine areas of the world?"
Mr. Eibl is optimistic it will. "A lot of that is going to come down to the responsibility that executives of these large companies feel," he says. "If the press and public opinion and farmers and world health organizations press that agenda, I think you'll find organizations will respond...."
But Jim Quick, wheat breeder and department head of soil and crop sciences at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, is not so sure. "It's scary any time we reduce our numbers of [breeding] programs," he says.
Terminator seeds generated particular controversy because the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) contributed to the breakthrough.
"Here we are using taxpayers' money for a company that can afford to do the research," complains Henry Shands, assistant administrator for genetic resources at USDA's Agricultural Research Service. Because Congress has kept the service's research budget essentially flat in recent years, government researchers are scrambling for funding.
"We see more and more of our scientists go out and compete for grants and try to get money from industry," Mr. Shands says. "And that makes us more beholden to industry." One of the biggest dangers is that as corporations pour increasing amounts of money into genetic research, public funding could dry up.
So far, such fears have not been realized. At publicly funded CIMMYT (a Spanish acronym for the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center outside Mexico City), researchers say the increase in private funding could help. For example, to aid the center in its mission to alleviate hunger among the world's poor, some private companies have donated useful technology - even before some of it was commercially available.
"We're now in almost weekly discussions with one company or another," says David Hoisington director of the center's applied biotechnology center. "We feel the private sector has a substantial amount to offer."
The technology behind Terminator seeds probably won't have much impact in the developed world. Farmers raising hybrid corn can't create a decent crop by replanting saved seed. And many farmers raising other crops find it more convenient to buy cleaned and uniform commercial seeds every year. So far, the technology only works in cotton and tobacco.
But in the developing world, millions of poor farmers rely on saved seed. The practice is so widespread that biotech companies argue they're reluctant to bring genetically altered seed into poor countries. Farmers will buy only a few seeds, plant them, and harvest more seeds themselves rather than buying them.