The reason is simple: seed companies have a financial incentive to keep self-cloning corn out of farmers’ hands because apomixis breaks a natural sort of copy protection. Seed companies sell mostly hybrids not just because they yield more but also because the differences between hybrid corn and its offspring are more pronounced than in inbred lines. Those differences drive farmers back to the dealer each year for fresh supplies of seed. Apomictic hybrids, on the other hand, could reproduce themselves exactly-and that would be bad for business.
No surprise, then, that many observers believe the firms sponsoring CIMMYT’s research want to use apomixis mainly as an in-house tool for speeding the complicated process of breeding hybrids and producing seed. Before selling seed to farmers, the companies could disable the self-cloning ability. “The thinking in the seed business is that apomixis would be more useful if you could turn it off,” says Anthony Cavalieri, vice president of trait and technology development at Pioneer Hi-Bred. Ultimately, CIMMYT’s corporate sponsors might see topnotch apomictic hybrids from CIMMYT as competition. “If the for-profit sector controls apomixis as a tool, it’s not going to want it used by the public sector to make self-replicating hybrids,” says Gary Toenniessen, who manages the Rockefeller Foundation’s programs in global agriculture. And any company that holds patents on an essential piece of apomixis technology would be able to block its use, at least until the patent expired.
In 1998 Jefferson of Australia’s Center for the Application of Molecular Biology to International Agriculture helped persuade more than 20 leading apomixis researchers from around the world to declare their opposition to corporate control of the research. The so-called Apomixis Declaration stated, “We are deeply concernedthat the current trend towards consolidation of plant biotechnology ownership in a few hands may severely restrict access to affordable apomixis technology.” Unfortunately, says Jefferson, “scientists are sluttish beyond words.” Many apomixis researchers have since signed up with private companies.
CIMMYT’s scientists insist there’s no problem. They maintain that their corporate sponsors have agreed to allow the center to distribute apomictic corn to poor farmers in developing nations. “It’s perfectly clear,” says Olivier Leblanc. “For CIMMYT clients, there is complete freedom.” But even Yves Savidan, the architect of CIMMYT’s apomixis collaboration with industry, has grown skeptical. “If you’re not in control of everything, you’re not in control of anything,” he says.
Even before the first apomictic self-cloning corn seeds are ready to be sown, the prospect looms that political debates and corporate interests will poison the ground. And that would be a blight not only on the future of poor farmers, but also on the reputation of agricultural biotechnology-a field already dogged by accusations that its science has not done enough for the human good.
Producing biotech crops that feed the poor and improve the lives of farmers in the developing world would convincingly refute such accusations. David Hoisington, director of CIMMYT’s biotechnology program, believes that such crops are on their way. CIMMYT’s first genetically engineered corn, a nonapomictic variety that repels the stem borer worm, is ready for field tests. In another decade or so, plots of apomictic corn could mark a new entry in the CIMMYT Walk of Fame. “The technology is such a powerful tool for solving problems,” says Hoisington, “that it has to be accepted.”