Monsanto offers false promises in Asia (28/11/2003)

"The position of the Thai government must be clear: if the GMO field trial ban does not suit Monsanto's business plans, then it is Monsanto's plans that must be thrown out, not common sense. "
Monsanto offers false promises
By Varoonvarn Svangsopakul
The Nation (Thailand) / Asia News Network
Editorial/Op-ed, 29 November 2003

Earlier this month, the U.S. genetic engineering and agrochemical giant, Monsanto, announced plans to make Thailand a regional base for its genetically engineered Round-Up Ready corn and Bt corn by 2006. For this plan to be realized, the company insists that Thailand's ban on GMO crop field trials must be lifted by the end of the year.

So that's the deal: lift the ban in the next few weeks and benefit from a strategic position in Monsanto's GMO push into Asia. Once again Monsanto - responsible for 91 percent of the world's GMO crops - is saying, "Trust us!" Yet the Thai public has every reason to distrust Monsanto and its supporters.

The ban that Monsanto is now challenging was imposed in April 2001 precisely because field trials of Monsanto's Bt cotton caused contamination of farmers' fields. When the field trials were initiated, Monsanto and key officials in the Agriculture Ministry and the Science and Technology Ministry guaranteed that these experimental GMO crops would be carefully controlled. They weren't.

Just as scientists had warned for more than a decade, once released into the environment these GMOs were out of control, contaminating non-GMO cotton and ending up in places they should never have been.

It was in this context of Bt cotton getting out of control that the Cabinet imposed a ban on any further field trials. Yet the Thai public is now told that Monsanto ready to conduct more field trials and wants the ban lifted. While this may suit Monsanto's business plans, does it make sense for the Thai government to once again put the environment and farmers' interests at risk? Added to this is a significant risk of GMO corn getting into the food chain and contaminating people's food.

While Monsanto and its supporters in the Thai government see the ban merely as a barrier to business, the Bt cotton scandal is a potent reminder that there was a very good reason for the ban to be imposed in the first place. Moreover, in the 31 months since the ban was imposed, new studies by overseas scientists, agronomists and economists have provided critical new insights into the negative impact of GMO crops on the environment and on farmers. This includes a broad consensus in the scientific community that "outcrossing" (GMO contamination of non-GMO plants) is the norm rather than a freak occurrence, and new evidence concerning damage to soil ecology and the proliferation of herbicide-resistant weeds.

Only a week after Monsanto announced its GMO corn plans for Thailand, a new report by Charles M Benbrook, "Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First Eight Years" (BioTech InfoNet, Technical Paper Number 6, November 2003) was released in the United States, exposing the impact of GMO crops on pesticide use.

The report said: "Contrary to the often-heard claim that GE technology has markedly reduced pesticide use, today's GE crops have modestly increased the overall volume of pesticides applied in the production of corn, soybeans and cotton from 1996 through 2003. There is now clear evidence that the average pounds of herbicides applied per acre planted to herbicide tolerant (HT) varieties have increased compared to the first few years of adoption. This is no surprise, given that scientists have warned that heavy reliance on HT crops might lead to changes in weed communities and resistance, in turn triggering the need to apply additional herbicides and/or increase rates of application."

Increased use of Monsanto's pesticide products, particularly Round-Up herbicide, is a key part of its business plan. And as the U.S. experience shows, farmers soon find themselves caught in a vicious cycle of dependence on Monsanto's patented GMO seeds and increased use of its pesticides.

The new study on pesticide use and GMO crops in the U.S. has a broader significance in Thailand. It is only one example of new research released over the past 31 months that must be discussed and debated before any decision is taken to release GMO crops into the environment - a move that ultimately risks turning Thailand into Monsanto's "GMO colony." One of the primary reasons for the ban on field trials was to give government agencies an opportunity to undertake a comprehensive review of GMOs and examine their environmental risks. This means that Thai government agencies must recognize new evidence and assess the implications.

However, instead of providing critical, new information to the Thai public, the Science and Technology Ministry's National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (Biotec) appears to be simply promoting public acceptance of GMOs, while waiting for the ban to be lifted. Instead of questioning the ecological risks of GMOs, Biotec's failure to engage in an objective and transparent assessment of new scientific research merely raises questions about the agency's own interest in lifting the ban on field trials and casts doubt on its ability to serve the Thai public.

The position of the Thai government must be clear: if the GMO field trial ban does not suit Monsanto's business plans, then it is Monsanto's plans that must be thrown out, not common sense.

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