EXTRACT: "We lost the European market for papayas after news that some GM papayas were removed from the Khon Kaen research centre a few years ago. Importers cancelled orders and never asked for Thai papayas again. We have lost Bt30 million in annual income from that event." - Exporter, Soonthorn Sritawee of River Kwai International Food.
GM testing takes battle to the fields
Rival camps in face-off over open-air trials
The Nation, 9 September 2007
A new round in the tug of war over genetically modified (GM) crops appears to have led Thailand nowhere as far as official clearance for field testing of two fruits is concerned.
The pro-GM camp, led by the agriculture and science ministers, recently faced strong opposition from anti-GM groups as well as the public health minister.
As a result, Cabinet last month deferred a decision on whether to permit field testing of GM papaya and tomatoes.
Given the fierce opposition, Agriculture Minister Thira Sutabutra decided to back off after twice trying to put the issue before the Cabinet.
Besides Thira, the pro-GM camp includes Science and Technology Minister Yongyuth Yuthavong and Natural Resources and Environment Minister Kasem Sanidwong na Ayudhaya.
In the opposite camp, Greenpeace Southeast Asia and BioThai are among the leaders, with the backing of the Public Health Ministry and exporters of organic farm products who are worried their image would be tarnished internationally.
"Allowing field testing of GM crops is wrong and would ruin the export of Thai farm products to major European and Japanese markets," said Wanlop Pitpongsa, chairman of the Thai Organic Agricultural Trading Association.
He added that GM crops were a highly sensitive issue and approval for field testing would simply destroy consumer trust in Thai organic products.
Another exporter, Soonthorn Sritawee of River Kwai International Food, said some exporters had already suffered due to the GM issue because GM crops are completely unacceptable in markets that preferred organic products. "We lost the European market for papayas after news that some GM papayas were removed from the Khon Kaen research centre a few years ago," he said.
"Importers cancelled orders and never asked for Thai papayas again. We have lost Bt30 million in annual income from that event."
Health Minister Mongkol na Songkhla said testing of GM crops in open fields should not be allowed and the country should continue to adopt a GM-free policy.
For GM proponents, the perspective is just the opposite.
"GM-crop development is important and necessary. We do not say Thailand must go for GM-crop production right away but we have to find out if it’s suitable," said Morakot Tanticharoen, director of the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (Biotec).
To continue the debate, she urged the government allow field testing so that scientists could gain a better knowledge of the negative consequences of GM crops. "Our technology in papaya and tomatoes is now at an advanced stage. If we cannot continue the research in open fields, we could lose the edge to neighbouring countries. I want the public to trust our safety measures. We have a qualified committee to oversee the field tests and local communities are welcome to help monitor the experiment," she added.
Greenpeace anti-GM campaigner Nattawipha Iwsakul disagreed, saying that even under such supervision, any leakage of GM crops as occurred in Khon Kaen would be bad for the environment.
Morakot of Biotech also noted that GM papaya had been helpful in eliminating the ring spot virus which would otherwise have continued spreading and damaging papaya plantations.
However, the anti-GM camp countered that it’s not worth the risk if getting rid of the virus is the key purpose of pursuing GM papaya, whose genes have been modified to be virus-resistant. Despite the virus, papaya production and farming areas in Thailand have not dropped in the past years, they say.
National Resource Development Policy researcher Banthoon Sethasirote said the GM debate should cover all key aspects of the country’s farm sector. "Scientists seem to have focused on efforts to prove whether GM crops are good or bad for the country, but if our policy is not pro-GM then there is no need for any field testing. We can continue research work in the laboratory.
"Scientific development is important but it does not mean we have to embrace all technologies. Genetic engineering is risky and a comprehensive assessment is needed before any go-ahead. Another risk is that if we approve field testing, organic-product exports would automatically finish forever. That is the risk we face," he said.
Environmental group BioThai said the interim Surayud government should leave the decision on whether to allow field testing to its successor.
"GM crops are a big issue that affect the long-term development of the country. If we allow field testing there would then be further development of GM technologies in Thailand. At stake is also the nation’s long-term food security."
While the organic-farming industry is a key opponent, giant conglomerates such as Charoen Pokphand Group (CP) have a different view. CP’s top executive Ajva Taolanond said development of GM crops was important for Thailand, but if the policy is to continue banning field tests then the company might experiment with GM crops in China, where it also has large operations.
As for papaya, Thailand’s total farming area is 124,260 rai with an annual production of 346,749 tonnes. Most output is for domestic consumption, with only 1,500 tonnes exported, worth Bt50 million.
Apart from papaya, 12 other plants are genetically engineered in Thailand under research units in various universities and at Biotec.