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2 The Evolution of Formal (Ex Situ) Crop Improvement and Plant Breeding

2 The Evolution of Formal (Ex Situ) Crop Improvement and Plant Breeding

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3 Plant Breeding & Seed Improvement: Then & Now

time, evidence suggests that Assyrians and Babylonians artificially pollinated date


The ability to improve a plant’s phenotypic characteristics (e.g. yield, size,

colour, pest resistance etc.) by manipulating or changing its genotype

(by artificial pollination for example) depends, inter alia, on the type of pollination

that a plant’s floral biology permits:

Pollination is the transfer of pollen from anthers (male reproductive part) to the

stigma (female reproductive part) of a flower,39 and constitutes the means by which

plants reproduce. Pollination usually occurs with the help of a pollinating agent,

such as the wind or insects, that helps carry the pollen from the anthers to the

stigma. Plants that need the assistance of the wind, insects, bees (‘pollinating

agents’ or ‘external agents’) etc. for pollination are broadly referred to as crosspollinating or open-pollinating crops. However, not all plants need to rely on the

wind or insects for pollination. Some plants, called self-pollinating plants, are

capable of pollinating themselves. Whether or not a plant relies on pollinating

agents to fertilize the stigma depends on the plant’s floral biology: In selfpollinating plants the anthers and stigma are so located within the flower that the

plant pollinates itself (in some cases, before the flower bud opens). Such plants are

therefore not dependent on external agents for pollination.40

It is noteworthy that various plant species permit (or require) varying degrees of

cross-pollination.41 Plants that permit very little or no cross-pollination include

wheat, barley and lettuce (in these plants, the flowers open only after pollination has

taken place). Plants that are primarily self-pollinating but permit some degree or

percentage of cross-pollination include certain species of pulses (e.g. red gram).42

Most plant species permit some degree of cross-pollination.43

As a result of the ability of self-pollinating plants to repeatedly pollinate

themselves, they tend to be naturally homozygous.44 It is, accordingly, difficult to

manipulate the pollination in such plants to produce plant varieties with new or

improved characteristics (i.e. such plants do not easily permit the creation of new

gene combinations). They largely remain stable (in terms of morphological and

physiological properties) for a number of generations.45 In open/cross pollinating

plants, however, doing so is relatively easier, as explained below.


George Acquaah, Principles of Plant Genetics and Breeding, 7.

Ibid., 59.


Ibid., 60–61.


Ibid., 60.


Sabine Demangue, Intellectual Property Protection for Crop Genetic Resources: A Suitable

System for India, 186.


George Acquaah, Principles of Plant Genetics and Breeding, 60.


For an explanation of homozygosity, see George Acquaah, Principles of Plant Genetics and

Breeding, 40.


Interview with Anita Babbar, Senior Scientist (Chickpea Breeding), Department of Plant

Breeding & Genetics, Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwavidyalaya (Jabalpur 21 February 2012),

available with author.


3.2 The Evolution of Formal (Ex Situ) Crop Improvement and Plant Breeding



Mendelian Genetics and the Creation of Hybrids

Several scientists are also well known to have contributed to the development of the

science of modern plant breeding, the foremost being Gregor Mendel.46 In 1865,

Mendel’s experiments with the pea plant explained the principles of heredity,47

particularly the transfer of specific traits (namely, the dominant traits, and in some

instances, the recessive traits48) from parent plants to subsequent generations of


Following the re-discovery of Mendel’s work in 1900, modern plant breeding

and the discipline of plant genetics were born. Subsequent work by several scientists led to the development of ‘techniques of selection that could be used to produce

uniform true breeding cultivars.’50 A ‘true-breeding cultivar’ (or ‘pure line’) can be

created by one of several methods. The conventional method of creating a pure line

is by repeated selfing51 (i.e. forced self-pollination or inbreeding). This leads to the


George Acquaah, Principles of Plant Genetics and Breeding, 7.

Mendel studied the inheritance of a number of well-defined traits, such as seed color, and was

able to deduce general rules for their transmission. He correctly interpreted the observed patterns

of inheritance by assuming that each trait is determined by a pair of inherited factors or alleles,

which are now called as genes.


Dominant and recessive traits are contained in the form of alleles (i.e. alternate forms) of the

same gene. Genes, alleles and traits can be better understood as follows: DNA are contained in

chromosomes that float inside the nucleus of each cell. There are 23 pairs (46) of chromosomes in

each cell. Chromosomes, simply speaking, are single pieces of coiled DNA inside cells. See

George Acquaah, Principles of Plant Genetics and Breeding, 39. Each gene also has a

corresponding homologue, which may exist in different forms: the variant forms are called alleles.

An allele is therefore one or more form(s) of the same gene. E.g. a gene may code for eye colour –

the same gene (i.e. a gene coding for eye colour) can have various forms such that one form, if

expressed, may result in blue eyes while the other form, if expressed, may result in brown eyes.

Both forms of the gene may exist in one cell. Which one of them is expressed is determined by

which one is dominant. If the brown eye genes are dominant, the individual is more likely to have

brown eyes. If the blue eye gene is dominant, the individual more likely to have blue eyes. If both

alleles (on the homologous chromosomes) are the same, they are homozygous. If the alleles are

different, they are heterozygous. Interview with N. Jayasuryan, Director and Senior Scientist,

Microtest Innovations Prv. Ltd (Bangalore, 10 January 2012). For a more detailed scientific

explanation of dominance and the related science of predicting the genotype and phenotype of

plants in a breeding program, see George Acquaah, Principles of Plant Genetics and Breeding,



George Acquaah, Principles of Plant Genetics and Breeding, 7.




In the conventional method, ‘selfing’ is most commonly done by emasculating the parent plant.

To avoid the need of emasculation, a non-conventional method is used to create (inbred) parental

lines. This involves incorporation of cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS). In order to make use of

CMS in a breeding program, three types of lines are needed – A-line (containing the sterile male

and no restorer genes in the nucleus), B-line (containing fertile male but still no restorer genes, also

called “maintainer” line) and R-line (the fertility restorer or the “restorer” line). A-lines are crossed

with B-lines to produce more A-lines and A-lines are crossed with R-lines to produce hybrids. See

order of the Registrar of Plant Varieties in “The Parental Lines” case and Regulation 2(f) the



3 Plant Breeding & Seed Improvement: Then & Now

creation of homozygous52 lines or lines containing specific desirable traits that

reproduce true to type.

Scientific development did not however stop at the production of homozygous or

true breeding cultivars.53 It is often the case that different plants of the same species

have different desirable traits that would be most beneficial if combined into one

single plant. Using the principles of heredity and genetics unearthed by Mendel and

other researchers, scientists were able to create new varieties by crossing two

(or more) un-identical seeds belonging to the same species but having different

desirable traits. These new varieties are called ‘hybrids.’ The very first successful

cross between two parental lines containing distinct desirable traits is called an F1

hybrid54 or first filial generation hybrids.

The first step in creating a hybrid, therefore, is having access to different plants

of the same species that have the necessary desirable traits. Information about the

various desirable properties of specific crop varieties (landraces) is acquired from

farmers in various geographical locations. These landraces then act as one or more

parent lines in a formal breeding program. As the private sector continuously seeks

to introduce new traits into their hybrid seeds in order to remain competitive in the

market, they have to repeatedly go back to nature to locate plant specimens that

contain a diversity of desirable traits. It is here that we see the importance of

traditional farmers’ varieties and landraces that have, over generations of cultivations, crossing, and natural mutations, acquired several desirable traits such as pest

resistance, tolerance to droughts or floods and high yield. This agrobiodiversity

conserved by farmers, therefore acts an indispensable raw material for continued

seed-related improvements and innovations by breeders in the public and private


Once the nominee parent lines having the desired traits56 and adequate genetic

distance are identified, each selected parent is selfed or inbred repeatedly so as to

PPV&FR Regulations, 2006 which defines “Parental Lines” as “the inbred line of immediate

parents or ‘A’ line ‘B’ line and ‘R’ line of hybrids.” See also George Acquaah, Principles of Plant

Genetics and Breeding, 170.


For a detailed scientific explanation of zygosity, including homozygous and heterozygous lines,

see George Acquaah, Principles of Plant Genetics and Breeding, 40.


Repeated in-breeding to create true breeding cultivars, however, has the effect of lowering the

performance of the variety due to the onset of what is known as “inbreeding depression.” George

Acquaah, Principles of Plant Genetics and Breeding, 336.


Self or cross pollination of an F1 hybrid leads to the creation of an F2 hybrid and so on.


Timothy Swanson and Timo G€

oschl, ‘Property Rights Issues Involving Plant Genetic Resources:

Implications of Ownership for Economic Efficiency,’ 89. The authors cite to an earlier study,

which estimated that 35 % of the production of modern new rice varieties can be attributed to the

genetic resource contribution into the R&D function.


For example, Parent A might be high yielding but prone to pest attacks and Parent B might be

resistant to pests but low yielding. Parent A and Parent B are crossed, (using traditional and

modern breeding methods) to finally, sometimes after years of effort, produce a hybrid that is both

high yielding and pest resistant. For a more scientific explanation of the genetic characteristics of a

F1 hybrid, see George Acquaah, Principles of Plant Genetics and Breeding, 40.

3.2 The Evolution of Formal (Ex Situ) Crop Improvement and Plant Breeding


purify it for their respective relevant traits. In the simplest terms, a seed that is

purified for a desirable trait with a view to crossing it with another parent to create a

hybrid, is called a Parental Line (in more technical terms, a parental line is

homozygous for the alleles associated with a particular phenotype).

The resulting hybrid contains the desirable traits of both parental lines and

therefore the desired superior qualities. In fact, an F1 hybrid outperforms both

parents in relation to each of the desired traits. This fact is called hybrid vigor or

heterosis and is the basis of all modern plant breeding activity.57

Here again, we come across the importance of landraces, especially a diversity

of landraces, in a breeding program: In order for a breeding program to be

successful, the hybrid created by crossing parents with various desirable traits

must display heterosis or hybrid vigor. In order for there to be hybrid vigor,

however, it is necessary that there be adequate genetic distance58 between the

parental lines used in the breeding program.59 This genetic distance is more likely

to be observed if the selected parents are acquired from geographically distant

areas. The importance of maintaining landraces in more than one geographic

location, or in as many diverse geographic locations as possible, is therefore clear.

However, in current scientific research, heterosis is found to not uniformly

manifest in all species and for all traits and is found to be much more frequent in

cross-pollinating crops than in self-pollinating crops.60 Accordingly, production of

pure lines and their subsequent crossing to create F1 hybrids with multiple desirable

traits is not equally possible for all plant varieties. Despite continuing efforts, so far,

commercially viable hybrids have been successfully created only for a few crops,

notably cross-pollinating crops and those self-pollinating and vegetatively propagated crops that are also capable of cross-pollinating to a significant degree. In case

of self-pollinating plants, so far, it has proven more difficult to create (commercially viable) hybrids because the floral biology of such crops does not permit

out-crossing or does not result in heterosis even on manual pollination.61 Therefore,


“Hybrid vigor or heterosis is the superior performance of the heterozygous hybrid progeny over

both homozygous parents.” See Eva Perez-Prat and M.M. van Lookeren Campagne, ‘Hybrid Seed

Production and the Challenge of Propagating Male-sterile Plants’ (2002) 7(5) TRENDS in Plant

Science 199. Also see, George Acquaah, Principles of Plant Genetics and Breeding, 7.


Genetic distance is defined as “the genetic divergence between species or between populations

within a species. Smaller genetic distances indicate that the populations have more similar genes.

This indicates that they are closely related i.e. that they have a recent common ancestor or recent

interbreeding has taken place.” .


George Acquaah, Principles of Plant Genetics and Breeding, 342 who cites studies that found

that “crosses between geographically or genetically distant parents expressed higher performance

and hence increased heterosis.” Accordingly, “intergroup hybrids significantly outyielded

intragroup hybrids.”


George Acquaah, Principles of Plant Genetics and Breeding, 339.


The reasons for this are diverse – ranging from lack of genetic distance or instability of naturally

occurring male sterile lines, or other so far undiscovered reasons. Interview with Kannan Bapu,

Professor (Plant breeding), Department of Pulses, Centre for Plant Breeding and Genetics, Tamil

Nadu Agricultural University (Coimbatore 17 January 2012), available with author.


3 Plant Breeding & Seed Improvement: Then & Now

although the development of scientific know how as described above made the

production of F1 hybrids possible, these breeding programs were, until recently,

successful at a commercially viable scale only for certain crop species such as

maize, pearl millet, sorghum, and vegetables crops.62

The Economics of Hybrid Seeds

Learned commentators have written extensively on the economic justifications for

the existence of IPRs. One of the most widely accepted economic justifications of

IPR is based on the appropriability problem of public goods.63 Two features of F1

hybrids resulting from successful formal breeding programs are particularly noteworthy in this context: First, because hybrids are created by crossing two or more

different parental lines, they are therefore heterozygous and incapable of

reproducing true to type.64 This means that if farmers who buy and sow hybrid

seeds were to save seeds from the harvest and use these saved seeds to grow the next

season’s crop, they would not get the high yields that the hybrid seeds offered in the

first season. Secondly, because of the diversity of plant traits, the diversity of known

parental lines, and the existence of hybrid vigor, once a hybrid is created, it is

difficult to identify (using any method similar to reverse engineering in pharmaceuticals) the specific parental lines used to create the unique hybrid.65

These two scientific facts heightened private sector interest in R&D for two

corresponding reasons: the inability of hybrids to reproduce true to type prevents

farmers from beneficially utilizing age old seed-saving and resowing practices. In

order to ensure that the hybrid seeds have both or all desired traits, farmers are

forced to buy new (hybrid) seeds from the market each season. Secondly, because

of the difficulty associated with identifying the parental lines of hybrids, companies

can maintain the identity of the parental lines as a trade secret, thereby avoiding


For a list of major crops divided by pollination type, see Tami Nadu Agricultural University


accessed October 29, 2014.


Sabine Demangue, Intellectual Property Protection for Crop Genetic Resources: A Suitable

System for India, 184.


This follows from Mendel’s Law of Segregation whereby the alleles for a trait separate during

meiosis and are distributed to different gametes. These allele pairs are then randomly utilized at

fertilization. George Acquaah, Principles of Plant Genetics and Breeding, 39. This results in the

loss (or segregation) of specific traits that a F1 hybrid seed is designed to display once cultivated.

For example, an F1 hybrid may have been specifically bred to display the dual traits of high yield

and pest resistance. In the second generation (i.e. when the seeds of the harvest resulting from

sowing the F1 seed are saved and resown in the next season), however, the alleles for the desired

traits will segregate or spread out and form new combinations of genes that may or may not contain

the desired dominant traits. The farmer would therefore lose a significant amount of his yield either

due to the low yielding characteristic of some of the seeds or due to attack from pests.


Peter J. Goss, ‘Guiding the Hand That Feeds: Toward Socially Optimal Appropriability in

Agricultural Biotechnology Innovation,’ 1418.

3.2 The Evolution of Formal (Ex Situ) Crop Improvement and Plant Breeding


unwanted competition from ‘copycat’ firms. Focusing on hybrids therefore yields

the dual purpose of curbing competition and ensuring a continuous/regular market

for (hybrid) seeds.

Therefore, the biological features of hybrids increase the appropriability of

social returns accruing from the cultivation of hybrid seeds and therefore provide

the ideal conditions necessary to attract private sector participation in hybrid plant/

seed breeding, production and distribution.66 Even in countries such as India,

following the adoption of the New Seed Policy67 of 1988, which permitted private

sector participation in the seed business, several private sector seed companies were

established. These companies flourished despite the absence, until 2001, of any sort

of intellectual property protection for seeds and plant varieties in India, by focusing

their research and production efforts on plants whose floral biology is conducive for

the creation of F1 hybrids.68

It has been argued that IPRs are needed to protect against competitors because

although parental lines are maintained as secret, they still have to be planted out in

the open for the purposes of seed multiplication and therefore become accessible to

competitors.69 However, the decades during which the agricultural seed industry

survived and flourished without IP protection, including in a highly competitive

seed industry environment, suggests that the hybrid technology coupled with the

high demand for high yielding crops provided optimum incentive for private

participation in plant breeding. In order to determine whether this observation

continues to be true in the current time, private sector interviews and surveys

were designed as part of this study. The details in this regard are provided in

Chaps. 6 and 7 below.


Self-Pollinating Varieties and Male Sterile Lines

While the private sector focused on F1 hybrids, the public sector, including

international cooperative research agencies, continued working not just on F1

hybrids for cross-pollinating crops that do not reproduce true-to-type, but also on

high yielding varieties of self-pollinating staple crops that do reproduce true to type.


Sabine Demangue, Intellectual Property Protection for Crop Genetic Resources: A Suitable

System for India, 185.


accessed October 29, 2014.


Mrinalini Kochupillai, ‘The Indian PPV&FR Act, 2001: Historical and Implementation Perspectives.’ For further details on the evolution of agriculture and agricultural policies in India and

current status of private sector participation in India, see Chap. 4 below.


Sabine Demangue, Intellectual Property Protection for Crop Genetic Resources: A Suitable

System for India, 185.


3 Plant Breeding & Seed Improvement: Then & Now

It was under the aegis of one such international research effort that the first High

Yielding Varieties (HYVs) of wheat and rice were developed by Norman E Borlaug

and his team. As is clear from their name, HYVs guaranteed high yields to farmers

who used them, especially if used along with the prescribed amounts of chemical

fertilizers, pesticides and water.70 This combination of HYV seeds and chemical

compliments led to the Green Revolution in wheat and rice in the 1960s and


HYV seeds and the related technology was also acquired and successfully

disseminated in India in the late 1950s.72 Thereafter, the appropriate technology

and know-how, including the best manner of cultivating, the quantity of pesticides

and fertilizers to be used etc. was innovated and recommended by the Indian

National Agricultural Research System (NARS).73 Once the dissemination of

HYV seeds to Indian farmers commenced, the Green Revolution spread rapidly

to most farming communities because of the traditional practice of saving, resowing

and exchanging seeds. Experts opine that in the absence of this tradition, such a

rapid spread would not be possible.74

Although HYVs of wheat and rice, unlike hybrids, can be re-used for several

generations without significant reduction in crop yield, contemporary scientific

understanding suggests that for best results, farmers must replace their seeds

(i.e. buy new seeds from the market) at least once in every three seasons for selfpollinating crops and once in every two season for cross-pollinating crops.75 This

scientific recommendation of seed replacement can be traced back to the traditional

practice of seed exchange as discussed in Sect. 3.1 above. However, current

(official/demographic) measures of seed replacement are not calculated on the

basis of frequency of farmer-to-farmer seed exchanges, but only on the basis of

frequency of commercial/market purchase of seeds. Therefore, given the low

official estimates of seed replacement rates, private sector participation in HYV


See Chap. 4 below for a more detailed discussion on the subject of Green Revolution, its

scientific and political history.


See Chap. 4 below for details.


See Chap. 4 below for details.


See generally, Mrinalini Kochupillai, ‘The Indian PPV&FR Act, 2001: Historical and Implementation Perspectives.’


Experts also opine however that India’s agricultural policies have catered more to the large

landowners and has neglected the needs of the poorer and small farmers. Sabine Demangue,

Intellectual Property Protection for Crop Genetic Resources: A Suitable System for India,

243, 257.


As per India’s National Seed Plan (undated), ‘seed replacement’ at the rate of 100 %, 35 % and

25 % respectively for hybrid, open-pollinating and self-pollinating crops is necessary to ensure

optimum agricultural yield. According to the NSP, the sub-optimal seed replacement rates in India

contribute significantly to low crop yield. See ‘National Seed Plan’
rial/National%20Seed%20Plan.pdf> accessed October 29, 2014.

3.2 The Evolution of Formal (Ex Situ) Crop Improvement and Plant Breeding


(non-hybrid, or typical) varieties is rather limited because it is not guaranteed that

farmers will indeed follow the suggested seed replacement policy.76

On the other hand, more recent scientific discoveries and innovations are

increasing private sector interest also in self-pollinating crops such as rice and

wheat. This increasing interest, albeit so far quite limited due to shortcomings in the

technology and associated outcomes,77 has been witnessed following the successful

creation of F1 hybrids by utilizing Cytoplasmic genetic Male Sterility (CgMS) in

naturally occurring mutants78 of certain self-pollinating crops (especially rice,

wheat, and more recently, red gram).79 The discovery of male sterile lines80 permits

crossing in self-pollinating crops resulting in the creation of hybrids that incorporate the commercially attractive trait of non true-to-type reproduction

(i.e. segregation of genetic material in the second generation—F2), resulting in


It is pertinent to note therefore that although developments in plant breeding, as described above,

led to the creation of improved varieties of several self and open pollinating varieties (using

different techniques of crossing), even until the 1990s, the private sector’s interests remained

focused primarily in hybrids of cross pollinating varieties or other varieties that do not reproduce

true to type. Private participation in production and distribution of HYVs of rice and wheat (and

other self pollinating crops that do reproduce true-to-type for several generations) remained

minimal or peripheral to this primary interest. See Chap. 4 below for statistical analysis of plant

variety protection application trends in India.


See for example Thiyagarajan Kalaimagal et al., ‘Development of New Cytoplasmic-genetic

Male-sterile Lines in Pigeonpea from Crosses between Cajanus cajan (L.) Millsp. and

C. scarabaeoides (L.) Thouars’ (2008) 49(3) Journal of Applied Genetics 221, where the scientists

attempted to create improved pigeopea varieties using CgMS (cytoplastic genetic male sterility)

but were unable to demonstrate hybrid vigor (and resulting yield increase) sufficient to justify the

costs involved in commercial hybrid seed production.


Male sterile lines have either been created or are discovered as naturally occurring in nature due,

inter alia, to natural mutations. Eva Perez-Prat and M.M. van Lookeren Campagne, ‘Hybrid Seed

Production and the Challenge of Propagating Male-sterile Plants,’ 199. Also, Donald N. Duvick,

‘The Use of Cytoplasmic Male Sterility in Hybrid Seed Production’ (1959) 13(3) Economic

Botany 167 for a detailed historical account of studies on cytoplasmic male sterility.


The phenomenon of male sterility was recorded as early as in 1793 and its role in evolution of

plants was also proposed by Darwin in 1890. However, the construction of a system for creating

hybrids using Cytoplasmic genetic male sterile (CGMS) lines is complex because it requires the

identification not only of the CGMS lines, but also lines that can be used to multiply these lines on

the one hand, and lines that can restore fertility (so that farmers planting these seeds can actually

have seeds/grains to harvest and sell) on the other. As stated above, CGMS based hybrid programs

(like the CMS based hybrid programs) therefore need an A line, a B line and an R line. Further, by

combining these lines, the resulting hybrid must display adequate heterosis (hybrid vigor) in the

form of desired traits (such as yield increase) in order for the hybrid seeds (typically a lot more

expensive than regular varieties) to be attractive for farmers. K.B. Saxena et al., ‘Male-sterile

Systems in Pigeonpea and their Role in Enhancing Yield’ (2010) 129 Plant Breeding 125. Also,

Donald N. Duvick, ‘The Use of Cytoplasmic Male Sterility in Hybrid Seed Production.’


For another account of the scientific discovery and development of male sterility inducing

cytoplasms, see Oscar N. Ruiz and Henry Daniell, ‘Engineering Cytoplasmic Male Sterility via

the Chloroplast Genome by Expression of β-Ketothiolase’ (2005) 138 Plant Physiology 1232. Also

see, Eva Perez-Prat and M.M. van Lookeren Campagne, ‘Hybrid Seed Production and the

Challenge of Propagating Male-sterile Plants,’ 199.


3 Plant Breeding & Seed Improvement: Then & Now

significant yield loss. Therefore, as in the case of hybrids of cross-pollinating crops,

hybrids of self-pollinating crops created using CgMS also prevents farm-saving and

resowing of seeds.81


Terminator and Traitor Technologies

In addition to conventional breeding programs that use the now traditional selection, selfing and crossing techniques, and the more recent use of male sterile lines in

breeding programs, genetic engineering technology has evolved in the last 2–3

decades to permit more elaborate and precise plant and seed improvement activity.82 These and associated technologies have been extensively documented to

further help increase crop yield83 and now also enhance nutritional content of


At the same time, several of these technologies are able to further limit, and in

some instances, eliminate, the possibility of on-farm seed saving, especially by

farmers. These technologies are designed to ensure that the seeds contained in the

very first harvest are sterile and therefore cannot be reused by farmers for cultivating crops in the following season(s). The most controversial of such technologies is

the Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURTs) that includes the so-called

terminator and traitor technologies.85

Following widespread protests by public interest groups and farmers, Monsanto,

one of the companies that had developed terminator seeds, tendered a public

statement promising never to use terminator technology in commercially sold


Interview with Kannan Bapu, Professor (Plant breeding), Department of Pulses, Centre for Plant

Breeding and Genetics, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (Coimbatore 17 January 2012),

available with author.


Genetic engineering permits scientists to circumvent sexual processes to transfer genes from one

parent to another or into offspring. According to some studies, “technological advances now

permit the transfer of as many as 12 genes into a plant genome.” See L. Chen, et al., ‘Expression

and Inheritance of Multiple Transgenes in Rice’ (1998) 16 Nature Biotechnology 1060.


Yanhui Lu et al., ‘Widespread Adoption of Bt Cotton and Insecticide Decrease Promotes

Biocontrol Services’ (2012) 00 Nature 1.


For example, scientists have genetically engineered a rice variety called ‘Golden Rice’ which

produces β-carotene in the seed. As a result, the rice becomes richer in Vitamin A, while most

grains, especially rice, are known to be deficient in Vitamin A. George Acquaah, Principles of

Plant Genetics and Breeding, 410.


George Acquaah, Principles of Plant Genetics and Breeding, 244: “The term [GURT] is broadly

used to describe the use of exogenous substances as inducers to control the expression of plant’s

genetic traits (e.g. trait of sterility, colour, ripening, and cold tolerance). The restriction of a

specific trait in a plant is called T-GURT (also derided by activists as ‘traitor technology’); the

V-GURT refers to the use of genetic engineering of plants to produce sterile seeds (i.e. the

terminator technology).”

3.2 The Evolution of Formal (Ex Situ) Crop Improvement and Plant Breeding


seeds.86 However, more recent developments suggest that seeds and crops

containing similar technologies are nonetheless being commercialized under a

different guise:

GURTs are considered to be useful technology not only from the perspective of

economic interests of the private sector, but also for other stakeholders. For

example, GURTs have been used to produce potatoes with longer shelf life, a

feature that is very attractive for retailers (vegetable stores)87: potatoes have a

natural tendency to sprout after harvest (including in supermarket shelves or in

consumer homes). This sprouting is necessary to allow the sowing of the next

season’s potato crop. However, once a potato sprouts, it is not attractive to the end

user (consumer) because sprouting indicates that the potatoes are old (harvested

quite some time ago). GURT has also been used to develop other vegetables with a

longer shelf life.88 However, advantages in the form of longer shelf life aside, late

or non-sprouting of potatoes also prevents farmers from sowing the next season’s

crop on time (or at all).89

It is noteworthy that because of the social, economic and also political issues

connected with the dissemination of seeds incorporating GURTs, countries such as

India have outlawed sale of seeds incorporating such technology. Nonetheless, such

Monsanto had tendered this public ‘promise’ in 1999. However, according to news reports, it

later revised its promise. ‘Biotech Giant Monsanto Revises Pledge on “Suicide Seeds”’

(23 February, 2006) accessed October 29, 2014. However, Monsanto’s

official website makes the following declaration: “Monsanto has never commercialized a biotech

trait that resulted in sterile – or “Terminator” – seeds. Sharing the concerns of small landholder

farmers, Monsanto made a commitment in 1999 not to commercialize sterile seed technology in

food crops. We stand firmly by this commitment, with no plans or research that would violate this

commitment.” (Emphasis in original) accessed October 29, 2014.


See US Patent No. 6700039 B1
6700039_B1.pdf> granted to Syngenta in 2004. Syngenta’s website states that: “Syngenta and

its predecessor companies have a long-standing policy not to use the so-called ‘terminator’

technology to prevent seed germination.” It defines terminator technology as “a hypothetical

process, which leads to plants with infertile seeds” and states that it was patented in 1998 (not

by Syngenta and its predecessor companies). The website adds that: “Syngenta believes that other

methods of controlling the activity of genes, such as chemical switch technology, will provide new

benefits for farmers and consumers. . . Other techniques involving the control of the activity of

genes in plants could bring a variety of benefits for farmers and consumers. These include boosting

the natural disease or pest resistance abilities within a crop plant during susceptible periods of

growth, reducing losses after crops have been harvested, or helping avoid frost damage by

controlling the timing of plant development.”


Genetic engineering has also been used to increase shelf life of other crops such as beetroot – see

US Patent No. 8,093,457 granted to KWS SAAT AG in 2012
patent/US/8093457/B2/US_8093457_B2.pdf> accessed October 29, 2014.


The sowing of the next season’s harvest ‘on time’ means sowing it before the rains or in the

season that is appropriate from the crops. This is particularly important in rain-fed agriculture and

agriculture in developing countries where nature and climatic cycles dictate cultivation cycles,

timing and patterns.



3 Plant Breeding & Seed Improvement: Then & Now

technology appears to have been introduced in regions of India through unclear

routes: For example, Syngenta owns a patent on what the media has, to a limited

extent, publicized as a ‘terminator potato’, which does not sprout unless sprayed

with specific chemicals. Interviews with concerned individuals during the course of

the fieldwork conducted for this research revealed that there were several protests

by small and marginal farmers in India who were, without proper information, sold

such potato seeds.90 While there was apparently a great deal of unrest among these

farmers (in a specific region of India) when they discovered the incapacity of these

potatoes to sprout (and therefore reproduce), there was no coverage of these reports

in the mainstream media, making a thorough analysis of the issues difficult.91

The potential impact of such a technology on agrobiodiversity have also not

gone unnoticed: Syngenta’s ‘terminator potato’ was received by farmers in several

regions of South America with particular disfavor, inter alia, because it was

perceived as a threat to ‘more than 3,000 local potato varieties that form the basis

of livelihoods and culture for millions of poor people’ in indigenous communities

of South America.92


Genetically Modified (GM) Seeds: Bt and Roundup®

Ready Technology

More (legally) acceptable uses of genetic engineering technologies have also been

developed, as in the case of several Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) crops—particularly

BtCotton introduced by Monsanto in 1996.93 Bt is a protein crystal from the

bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which naturally produces chemicals that kill

certain moth larvae that eat and destroy cotton crops (particularly the American

bollworm).94 The gene from the bacterium that codes for the desired chemicals is

inserted into the genetic make-up of cotton seeds, thereby creating a transgenic

cotton seed that produces this ‘natural’ insecticide in its tissue.


Interview with Dhanpat Ram Agarwal, Founder Director, ITAG Business Solutions (New Delhi

9 January 2012), available with author.


Although the local language newspapers did apparently have some coverage of the issue, these

were not traceable, inter alia, due to language, time and resource related limitations. Interview with

Dhanpat Ram Agarwal, Founder Director, ITAG Business Solutions (New Delhi 9 January 2012),

available with author.


See ‘Andean Farmers Oppose Syngenta’s Terminator Potatoes’ (January 12, 2007)
www.banterminator.org/content/view/full/566> accessed October 29, 2014.


See T.V. Padma, ‘GM in India: The Battle over Bt Cotton’ Sci Dev Net (20 December 2006)

html> accessed October 29, 2014.


Yanhui Lu et al., ‘Widespread Adoption of Bt Cotton and Insecticide Decrease Promotes

Biocontrol Services.’

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