POLICY REVERSAL: Green light for GMOs

The Nation | Bangkok | 21 August 2004

POLICY REVERSAL: Green light for GMOs
PM authorises planting, trading of modified crops after testing

"Recently the US government stated in its proposed free-trade agreement [FTA] to the Thai government that Thailand had to support the implementation of IPRs, agree with the benefits and use of GMO technology and make Thai people understand that GM technology was not dangerous."
— Jacques-chai Chomthongdi, FTA Watch

Kamol Sukin

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra yesterday bestowed the government’s tacit blessing on the planting and trading of genetically modified (GM) crops by revoking an earlier ban on their commercial use, in defiance of wide opposition from farmers, environmentalists and consumer networks.

In contrast to the current policy that only permits GM crops to be grown in laboratories for experimental purposes, the revision will allow for open planting and commercialisation of GM crops provided they receive approval from the Bio Safety Committee (BSC), the premier said.

The announcement was made yesterday after Thaksin chaired a meeting of the National Biotechnology Policy Board (NBPB) at the Science Ministry.

"We are not going to promote GM crops, but we will not slam the doors shut on their development. We will allow for their plantation and commercialisation as we do for other crops," said Sakarindr Bhumiratana, NBPB secretary and president of the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), who relayed the prime minister’s speech.

After outlining Thaksin’s three basic options of promoting GM crops, allowing them to be planted and commercialised, and imposing an outright ban on their commercial use, Sakarindr said: "We choose the second option."

"The current policy caused misunderstanding among researchers and private biotech companies that led to a decrease in related research and investment," he said.

"The policy change is needed. Otherwise Thailand will fail to keep abreast of the global current in the GM-crop trade," Sakarindr added.

As a means of kick-starting the policy next Tuesday, the Cabinet will revoke the resolution it passed on April 3, 2001 that effectively bans any handling of GM crops outside a research environment.

The Bio Safety Committee has been tasked with issuing suitable safety measures within three months in a bid to implement the new policy as soon as possible.

Meanwhile the Natural Resource and Environment Ministry has been assigned to draft the Bio Safety bill within one year, while the Science Ministry has been granted authority over assessing the safety of GM crops and related products.

The premier’s political about-face has inflamed local farmers, environmentalists and consumer networks.

"The policy is putting Thai people at risk," said Witoon Lianchamroon, director of the BioThai Network.

"How can the government place its trust in the Bio Safety Committee when it has long been known as a paper tiger? It has no legal power to enforce the rules and therefore cannot make private companies adopt its guidelines," he said.

The networks said they believed the decision stemmed from heavy US pressure and giant biotech corporation Monsanto, which allegedly aims to monopolise the Thai grain and agricultural markets.

Witoon said he anticipated a national upswell of protest against the premier’s decision to decriminalise the crops.

"It is a mammoth mistake, and the premier will undoubtedly suffer the consequences," Witoon said. "Thaksin has doubled back on his ’big promise’ to farmers and environmental groups," Witoon said, referring to the April 3, 2001 Cabinet resolution which was the result of protracted negotiations between rival lobbying and government groups.

Witoon said the resolution represented Thaksin’s promise to put the issue to bed before 2001, when a leak of genetically modified cotton was discovered in the northeastern provinces.

"The policy will put Thailand at risk of further contamination from GM crops, which may spread to natural plants. The premier will take us to the point of no return," he said, referring to the potentially irreparable level of damage some believe GM crops will wreak.

"The lesson to be learned from the Bt cotton episode in Loei province is that controlling contamination is impossible and thus there is a large inherent danger," he added.

"Before long an opposition movement will take place. Not only from our network but also from other consumer and environmental networks," warned Witoon.

Varoonvarn Svangsopakul, a campaigner from Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said the policy would make eating GM-contaminated food unavoidable.

"GM products are banned in most countries, especially our ’expert’ countries like the EU and Japan. Consumers there reject them to avoid possible side-effects," she said.

"Next week we will hold a special session and invite GMO scientists from Britain to update us on the latest GMO safety developments," she added.

Jacques-chai Chomthongdi, founding member of the Free Trade Agreement Watch, said he believed the government had been swayed by lobbying from Monsanto Thailand and the US government, which wants to protect its biotech trade.

"The US Trade Representatives expressed quite clearly during my visit to Washington DC several months ago that granting intellectual property rights [IPR] for GM grain was the staple US policy and it was not subject to negotiation regardless of nation," he said.

"Recently the US government stated in its proposed free-trade agreement [FTA] to the Thai government that Thailand had to support the implementation of IPRs, agree with the benefits and use of GMO technology and make Thai people understand that GM technology was not dangerous," he said.

"There is no other reason why the US had to sign an FTA with Thailand as it was already receiving benefits in deals made in other business sectors," he added.

Discussions on penning a Thai-US FTA began this year, with follow-up talks scheduled for Hawaii next October and the third round slated for soon after that in Bangkok.

Apart from the new policy on GM crops, yesterday’s meeting also saw the Bt660-million Bio Park project approved in an endeavour to boost the nation’s competitiveness in the biotech industry.

The NSTDA was also granted principal authority in developing a "shrimp cluster" to promote the domestic shrimp industry by exploiting new biotechnology.

Responding to the government’s announcement, Monsanto’s spokesman Khongthas Janchai said the company was "very happy" with the reversal and planned to launch field tests for two potential GM crops, the Round-up Ready and Bt maizes, in the near future.

"We believe GM crops can coexist with native plants without any negative impact. The government is on the right track," he said.

Khongthas denied accusations by the farmers’ network that Monsanto had developed a special relationship with NSTDA’s scientists and had applied pressure to amend the policy.

Scores of farmers and environmental networks contacted by The Nation yesterday said they were currently discussing ways of responding to the new crop policy to register their protest.

"We cannot reveal how this movement will express itself, but it will happen in a big way, and we are hoping for large-scale public support," said one environmental activist contacted by telephone.


GM crops

Genes are the blueprints for every living organism. Genetic engineering is the process of artificially modifying these blueprints. By cutting and splicing DNA - essentially genetic surgery - genetic engineers can transfer genes from one organism to any other organism on earth.

In the case of plants, scientists want to transfer desirable qualities, for example, to make a crop resistant to herbicides or to enhance food value. Scientists in favour of genetically modified organisms believe the practice could lead to a secure future for food.

Another group of scientists disagree. They contend genetically modified crops will produce new toxins and allergens in foods, affecting the health of consumers. They are also concerned about large-scale environmental and ecological damage.

Introducing GM crops would also lead to a significant loss of biodiversity, especially the native species, they say.

Scientific evidence on GM crops is still insufficient to judge whether they are safe for human consumption. Most studies of the GM crops are currently laboratory-based with few field experiments having been conducted.