NOTE: This article relates to the decision on Christmas Day by the military-installed interim Thai cabinet to ''amend'' the 2001 ban on all field trials of GM crops so as to make them permissible within state research stations.
Policy U-turn on GM has crucial ramifications
By WITOON LIANCHAMROON Bangkok Post, January 3 2007 http://www.bangkokpost.com/News/03Jan2008_news13.php
Despite strong opposition by environmental and consumers organisations, and also by traders of organic products, the Surayud Chulanont cabinet has decided to lift a ban on field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops.
The policy U-turn on Dec 25, 2007, two days after the general election, was a slap in the face of political etiquette. Previously, the interim government had promised it would not pass any major policies and/or projects as their term of office was running out. The latest decision will have crucial ramifications on the future of farmers and export markets, worth several billion baht.
In 1995, Thailand began allowing the import of several GM crops for research purposes. Upjohn was the first company to import GM tomatoes for experiment in its laboratories. Upjohn was followed by Monsanto, Novartis, Pioneer Hybrid and Cargill, which imported GM cotton and maize between the periods of 1995-1999.
In the same period, the Department of Agriculture (DOA) also imported three GM varieties of indigenous plants, namely rice, melon and papaya for further tests in the country.
The importation of GM plants inadvertently led to problems of genetic contamination. In 1999, an environmental organisation named Biothai discovered leaks of GM cotton in individual farms; the seeds had been imported by Monsanto for open field tests. Eventually the Thaksin Shinawatra government passed a cabinet resolution on April 3, 2001 that banned all field trials of GM plants until the implementation of a national bio-safety law. Still, the mistake was repeated when in 2004 Greenpeace discovered that the distribution of papaya seeds from the DOA's research station at Tha Phra in Khon Kaen province included a GM variety even though it was supposed to be limited to the government's research lab. And just one week before the Dec 25 cabinet meeting, Biothai found GM maize had been leaked to farmers' fields in Wat Thong district, Phitsanulok province. The site is near the research station of Monsanto, the company that imported GM maize for its own experiments in 1999.
Genetic contamination is considered a serious problem around the world. The discovery in 2000 of Starlink GM maize in individual farms, flour factories and certain ready-made food products [in the United States] caused damage worth estimated at over US$1 billion. Due to the presence of Cry9C protein in GM maize found to potentially cause allergy in humans, Aventis the manufacturer was allowed to grow the plant only as animal feed. In 2006, the rice industry in the United States was seriously affected by the contamination of Liberty Link 601 GM rice, developed by Bayer Crop Science.
The 2004 reports of GM papaya contamination in Thailand similarly led to the cancellation of papaya exports from Thailand by Britain-based Tesco supermarkets.
Genetic contamination also poses problems for farmers _ they run the risk of facing lawsuits over patent violations from multinationals. The much-publicised case of Canadian Percy Schmeiser who was prosecuted after the canola he grew was found to contain GM varieties that had spilled over from his neighbour's farm, may be a future scenario for Thai farmers.
Such concerns are not without grounds: Mr Dennis Gonsalves, who owns a patent on the GM papaya, once gave an interview that he considered both the GM variety and any future cross-hybrids between the local Thai varieties and the GM version to be a property of Cornell University, his affiliation.
In effect, the claim that the Thai cabinet's Christmas resolution will help promote the development of biotechnology research by our own scientists is questionable: GM technology and more than 80% of the GM seed market have long been monopolised by one single multinational, and the rest divided by a handful of others. The decision seems to pave the way for the commercialisation of GM plants down the road. The lifting of the ban will not only delight Agriculture Minister Theera Sutabutr and other GM scientists, but also the American corporation based in Missouri, the owner of numerous patents on GM papaya, cotton, maize, soybean and many others. Without doubt, they must have had a great time celebrating Christmas and the end of the year.
Witoon Lianchamroon is a founding member of Biothai Foundation, a non-profit organisation that has been working on GM issues, bio-piracy and the rights of small-scale farmers.