A technology called a ‘terminator’ was never going to curry much favour with the public. But even Monsanto, the agricultural biotechnology giant in St Louis, Missouri, was surprised by the furore that followed when it patented a method for engineering transgenic crops to produce sterile seed, forcing farmers to buy new seed for each planting. In 1999, Monsanto’s chief executive pledged not to commercialize terminator seeds.
The concept, if not the technology, is now gaining traction again. This week, the US Supreme Court hears arguments that pit Monsanto against 75-year-old Indiana soya-bean farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman, who used the progeny of Monsanto seeds to sow his land for eight seasons. The company says that by not buying seeds for each generation, Bowman violated its patents. If Bowman wins — and observers say that is not out of the question — the decision could make it harder for biotech firms to enforce patents on engineered organisms, from seeds to microbes, prompting them to revisit terminator-like technology.