The Nation, Bangkok
AGRICULTURAL TRADE: Mandatory checks on Chinese fruit
17 July 2004
By Jeerawat Na Thalang and Janjira Jarusupawat
Move seen as way to slow huge imports since FTA
The Agriculture Ministry will soon require selected lots of apples and pears from China to pass mandatory tests for chemical residues, pests, micro-organisms and heavy metals before they can enter the country.
The ministerial regulation now being drafted is considered a measure to slow down the huge influx of Chinese apples and pears after the free-trade agreement eliminating tariffs on fresh fruits and vegetables between the two countries went into effect last October.
“In the face of large imports, there are not enough technicians to carry out the tests,” Banchongsak Pakdee, director of the plant control office for the Northern region, said yesterday.
Checks on random samples of apples and pears from China often turn up traces of chemicals like monochrotophos and mevinphos that are banned in Thailand, he said.
“Though the chemical concentration does not exceed the legal limit, we are concerned about their presence,” he said.
Danuwat Pengon, vice president of Maejo University, called on authorities to pay closer attention to the fact that China extensively uses chemical fertilisers in farming and is an exporter of chemicals and pesticides.
“We need proper inspections to ensure safety for consumption,” he said.
Since the start of the “early harvest” scheme, the volumes of Chinese apples and pears entering through the Chiang Saen checkpoint have jumped markedly to 19,100 tonnes and 14,000 tonnes respectively, since October.
The bilateral free-trade policies of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra came under attack from the Democrat Party, which claimed the government has defied the Constitution by not seeking parliamentary approval before striking trade deals.
At a seminar at the party headquarters attended by tens of party members including former prime minister Chuan Leekpai, deputy party leader Kalaya Sophonpanich described an FTA as a vehicle that would drive the country into ruin.
Kalaya told the large audience the government had appeared to be in a big hurry to clinch FTAs with Australia and China. “The government didn’t study the impact before inking the pacts and has no safeguard measures for those affected by the FTAs.”
Countries like the United States and Australia require trade representatives to conduct a public hearing and gain congressional approval before concluding FTAs, but the Thaksin administration decided on the matter single-handedly even though the issues will have a direct impact on Thais, she said.
Party leader Banyat Bantadtan also took a dim view of the fast-track tariff cuts. “Although the FTAs are a big issue because they push Thailand into binding agreements for several years, I don’t understand why the government has to rush into making the agreements without performing thorough analysis,” he said.
Fruit and vegetable farmers in the northern provinces were a good example of losers under FTAs, he said.
“A study has shown that the farmers in the North have already seen their incomes drop by 6 per cent from the FTA with China,” Banyat said.
The government has embarked on FTA talks with dozens of countries. The first comprehensive FTA was signed recently with Australia.
Treepol Johjit, a Democrat MP from Nakhon Si Thammarat, said the government should put the FTA issue on the national agenda because it destroys the farmers who are backbone of the economy.
“How can the government be sure that onion and garlic farmers, vegetable planters and dairy farmers can survive after the FTAs?” he asked.
Abhisit Vejjajiva, another deputy leader, said the government should place higher priority on multilateral agreements under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the Asean forum, which includes countries with a similar degree of economic power - “so small countries can build bargaining power together,” he said.
“The Democrats don’t oppose trade liberalisation, but the government should consider agreements that correspond with the country’s economic development.”
Thailand may find it difficult to reach a fair deal with bigger economic powers especially the US because of the country’s limited bargaining power in trade talks.
“An FTA is not a win-win game, there are both winners and losers,” he said. “The government should not try to compete with countries like Singapore in collecting FTAs because our economy is different. Singapore doesn’t have any natural resources.”
Charoen Kambhiraparb, a law lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, said the government should clarify to the public that the proposed FTA with the US is not purely a trade matter.
“There are a number of side letters that will expand protection to other areas of sovereignty such as intellectual property and investment rules,” Charoen said.
“These are issues that relate to national economic sovereignty because our government may be forced to amend laws and regulations to comply with the conditions set by the FTA,” he said.
“FTA ancillary conditions are more critical than the trade aspects. But the government never consulted with Parliament or the people before launching talks with the US. The government unilaterally decided on the issue, which violates the Constitution because the Constitution says the government must exercise power that it receives from the public.”
He warned that the FTA with the US might force Thailand to raise protection standards for intellectual property rights much higher than the Kingdom’s commitments to the WTO. Based on the FTAs that the US has struck with Chile and Mexico, the US’s trade partners have to honour patents on plant varieties.
“Thai rice farmers may have to pay royalties if a US investor modifies a rice strain from Thailand and registers a patent on it in the US,” he said.