Terminator plants - technically known as V-GURTs (genetic use restriction technologies) - are several different technologies designed to either render seeds sterile at harvest or to prevent saved seeds from growing into mature plants by disrupting plant development at various stages. They were first presented in 1998 as a patented ‘technology protection system’ to stop farmers from saving and growing seeds of patented crops, triggering a global outcry. Later terminator technology was (and continues to be) put forward as a containment strategy for GM crops; this was done on a hypothetical basis rather than being based on any data.
In their design, pollen from V-GURTs plants is fertile and could contaminate crops on other fields. The resulting seeds would be sterile if all goes to plan. It would be a serious threat to food security if farmers unknowingly kept and sowed such sterile seeds in the next season.
The technology is still at the development stage. Scientific articles have been published about some components of transgenic switch mechanisms, but not on functioning V-GURTs plants. However, these articles already indicate that V-GURTs will not offer a fully reliable system to prevent contamination of GM crops.
Due to the risks and the threat to food security, a de facto global moratorium is in place against terminator plants.
Investigating terminator seeds
EcoNexus has been investigating terminator technology since 1998, first presenting on this technology at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that same year. Our article Terminator Technology – The Threat to Global Food Security was published in 1999 and continues to be relevant.
The more technical report V-GURTS - Design, Reality and Inherent Risks gives detailed information on the different approaches and their specific risks.
Two more specific papers for CBD meetings focus on the questions why terminator seeds are not a reliable biological containment system and why it would be irresponsible to conduct open field trials with them.