The recent OECD 'New Biotechnology' conference in Bangkok was dismissed by its critics in South East Asia as "a forum to promote acceptance of GM products in developing countries".
And oddly enough the very day of the conference inauguration (July 10) saw a new bid by Monsanto to get its GM cotton approved in Thailand. July 10 also just happened to be the very day of publication of the new UNDP report promoting the value of GM crops for countries in the south.
But for all the careful corporate coordination, Thailand may be no more ready to roll over for Monsanto than India recently was -- at least, if this editorial in the Bangkok Post is anything to go by:
"...at this point the benefits are dubious and the safety concerns are real. There is no need to hurry taking [GMOs] from a controlled environment into the field. The only urgency is on the part of companies who want to recoup huge research and development costs, and reap much larger profits. That is their problem. We should not let it become ours."
Editorial: GM crops ban right for now
Bangkok Post, July 15 2001
Bangkok provided a stage for the worldwide controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) this last week. The city was the site of a conference hosted by the Office of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on biotechnology, while anti-GMO activist groups protested and held workshops outside.
Almost unnoticed was an announcement on Tuesday that the agro-biotech giant Monsanto is once again attempting to bring Thailand into the genetically modified farming fold. The company announced that it would seek government approval to grow a new strain of hybrid cotton, about which a spokesman admitted, "some of the strain might be of the Bt variety."
Bt cotton, and other Bt crops, have been modified to make a substance, normally produced by the bacteria known as bacillus thurigiensis, which is poisonous to some insects. Proponents of the technology say that farmers' profits are much higher with the modified plants because yields are greater and much less pesticide is required.
But while somewhat higher yields have generally been reported with the Bt crops, there have been many instances where yields are as high, or higher, with normal crops. And it is common for insects to become resistant to the Bt toxin, requiring the use of different pesticides. In April this year, the Thaksin government wisely decided to prohibit field tests with Bt cotton, and all other genetically engineered plants. Although there may come a day when GM crops with a clear advantage and proven safety are developed, there is no reason to lift the ban at this time.
One of several legitimate concerns in introducing foreign genes to plants, and then releasing those plants into the environment, is that the genes are sometimes able to jump from the modified plant into other related plant species. A study published in the scientific journalNature found that GM plant genes were 20 times more likely to turn up in other plant species than natural plant genes. Part of the reason for the Thai government's cancelling of tests with Bt cotton was a concern that genes could flow from the GM plants to plants in the cotton family identified by the Institute of Traditional Thai Medicine as medicines.
What is just as disturbing as the uncertainties surrounding the application of this powerful technology are the tactics employed by certain corporations to create and then control the market for their product.
For instance: manufacturing a widely used herbicide which kills anything green, and then developing crop plants which are genetically modified to resist the herbicide; patenting of many natural plants around the world for their genes, so that locals do not have rights over them; buying up of companies which sell natural seeds; requiring farmers who have bought modified seeds to sign an agreement that they will not save the seeds produced during the growing season to use in the following season, an ancient and logical practice.
Instead, they must purchase more seeds for the next year; and in the same vein, developing plants which have genetic modifications that do not allow the plants to reach maturity and produce seeds, so that new seeds will have to be purchased.
Like it or not, GMOs are a part of the future, and they should not be given a blanket condemnation. Research in the lab using GMOs has greatly increased biological knowledge, and made possible most of the tremendous advances in medicine in recent years. GM crop plants may also make important contributions in future, but at this point the benefits are dubious and the safety concerns are real. There is no need to hurry taking them from a controlled environment into the field. The only urgency is on the part of companies who want to recoup huge research and development costs, and reap much larger profits. That is their problem. We should not let it become ours.