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Agri-giant Monsanto is headed to the Supreme Court this week for a battle against 75-year-old Indian farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman. If Bowman wins, it could be hailed as a massive win for the little guy, and it would make it harder for companies like Monsanto to enforce patents, but the case could have broader implications. If Monsanto loses the case, the company may opt to resurrect technology that would allow it to sterilize seeds, preventing them from being able to produce offspring. Dubbed ‘terminator’ technology, the result is a seed that can produce a crop of food but cannot reproduce, effectively self-destructing after a single use, and it could spell disaster for farmers.
Monsanto developed terminator technology in the 1990s, but in 1999 Monsanto’s CEO promised not to commercialize the technology. If the company loses the case, it could make it harder for the company and other seed companies to protect their patents. One way to offset this problem is to create seeds that can’t reproduce, thereby preventing patent violations before they can even begin.
The problem with this type of genetic use restriction is that it raises concerns about biodiversity, since it essentially puts an end to natural reproduction, forcing farmers to rely on companies like Monsanto for their livelihoods.
If there’s a silver lining to the terminator technology, it’s that the technology could be used to beat genetically modified seeds at their own game. GMO seeds often contaminate organic crops after being spread through wind and wildlife, but plants that are unable to reproduce would end the threat to organic farmers. In the end, only time will tell whether Monsanto will pursue the technology or leave it on the drawing room floor.