Biotechnology train may be Pandora's box (24/8/2004)


2 items, including an excellent commentary, on what's going in Thailand, where a review is being urgently demanded of the plan to approve open field trials and commercialisation of GM plants.

There are also demands that the government passes biosafety laws and acts to protect farmers' and consumers' rights and the country's natural resource base, before it considers the new policy.

A particular point of contention is the fact that the government has never asked local farmers or consumers whether they want GM crops. It stands accused of basing its decision solely on a requirement from Washington and corporations eager to export GM seeds and products to Thailand.

Biothai's director Witoon Lianchamroon points out, "The government's policy on biotechnology and GMOs will have a big impact on farmers and the agricultural sector, so the government should consult the public before coming up with any decision." (item 2)

The Thai Cabinet did not consider the new policy proposal at its meeting this week, but it is expected to do so next Tuesday.

1.Biotechnology train may be Pandora's box

1.Biotechnology train may be Pandora's box
The Nation, August 24, 2004

When Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced on Friday that Thailand would embrace genetically engineered (GE) crops, he declared that, 'The government won't let the country miss the biotechnology train.'

The message was clear: Thailand must adopt this new, cutting-edge technology as a matter of national competitiveness. But a closer look at the reasoning behind the National Biotechnology Policy Committee's decision suggests that the government knows very little about this train, or even where it's going.

Take for example Thaksin's claim that the EU is now open to GMOs. Clearly he was trying to reassure Thailand's farmers and food exporters that the introduction of GE crops would not hurt exports. But it's not very reassuring if it isn't true. The EU's de facto moratorium on GMOs remains intact, and approvals of GE crops remain blocked.

Only one GE food crop - Syngenta's Bt11 sweet corn - has slipped through, but Syngenta has now announced that it will not be commercialised. More importantly, the EU's new GMO labelling and 'traceability' laws, requiring comprehensive documentation of all every step, impose the strictest possible limits on unintended GMO contamination in food products - further indicating that consumer rejection of GE food remains strong.

So, in practical terms, the EU remains closed to GMOs, and the real economic potential for Thailand's farmers and food exporters lies in a GMO-free policy that promotes 'the kitchen of the world' free from GE crops, and therefore free from GMO pollution.

It's precisely because of this consumer rejection abroad and in Thailand that the government's GMO train ride is advertised as heading for two different destinations - the world of GE crops and a world of non-GE conventional and organic crops. This, the government claims, gives farmers and consumers a greater choice. But does it? Is this 'co-existence' of GE and GE-free crops really possible?

Over the past decade we've witnessed dozens of GE contamination scandals overseas, involving GE pollen, seeds and food ingredients ending up in places where they should never have been. Mexican corn has been contaminated with GE corn imported from the US, and Brazilian soya is contaminated with Roundup Ready soya from neighbouring Argentina. On top of all this, there has been a flood of lawsuits and compensation claims and counter-claims filed by farmers and GE corporations in Canada and the US.

Earlier this month, the Organic Agriculture Protection Fund (representing organic farmers in Saskatchewan) announced that they were filing a class action lawsuit against Monsanto and Bayer CropScience for GE contamination of organic canola. All of this suggests that keeping the worlds of GE farming and conventional and organic farming apart is not only complex, but simply impossible.

It is the impossibility of 'coexistence' that raises the most serious questions about the National Biotechnology Policy Committee's decision. It's a decision that ignores a vast body of scientific evidence concerning GE contamination of organic crops, and a growing international consensus in the
scientific community that contamination through pollen flow from GE crops or the accidental movement of GE seeds is inevitable.

In other words, contamination will happen. Not only has the government chosen to ignore this potential disaster on the GMO train ride, but it has also refused to recognise the fact that GE papaya contamination has already occurred in Thailand, under its very own eyes.

Finally, there is the question of whether Thailand is really missing anything if it doesn't jump on the 'biotechnology train' of genetic engineering. The government claims the country shouldn't miss this train because it involves cutting-edge technology for the future. But the fact is that much of the scientific knowledge that was used to create genetic engineering has now come under serious challenge. Far from being cutting edge, it now appears outdated and defunct.

Unexpected and unintended things are happening, and the basic assumptions of GE science have been turned on their heads. Instead of being a new cutting-edge technology that Thailand should embrace, it has already become a faulty,
unreliable technology - outdated and riddled with risks. So it seems that the Thai public is being asked to jump on board the GMO train without being told the whole truth.

Note that as soon as Thaksin gave the green light to open-air field trials of GE crops, the Thai public found out for the first time that GE crops are already in the country and ready to be field tested. That's exactly why we need an open, public debate and discussion before being forced onto the GMO train. Because once we're on board, we can't get off. Once GE crops are released into the environment in Thailand, they can't be put back in the laboratory.

The reason that all GE crops should remain in the laboratory is that no GE crops or GE food products have undergone independent, comprehensive, long-term assessment of their effects on the environment or human health. Most GE crops are only tested to see if they are 'substantially equivalent' to the normal crop. So there's no need to provide evidence proving that they're not harmful to the environment or human health. In the US, GE crops are approved solely on the basis of research data provided by the companies themselves, using short-term feeding studies, usually involving rats, chickens, etc.

A decision that directly affects the health, environment and well-being of the Thai people should be a decision made on the basis of scientific facts, public opinion, religious beliefs and
cultural values. It's not just about business deals and exports. It's about whether Thai people are willing to be guinea pigs in a genetic experiment that - once it begins - cannot be reversed. And that really does seem like a train ride heading for disaster, and one we're better off missing.

Varoonvarn Svangsopakul is a genetic-engineering campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

Bangkok Post August 23, 2004

Farmer advocates and the FTAWatch group [FTA = Free Trade Agreement, is the bilateral agreement currently bring negotiated with the US, as part of which the US is demanding thailand open up to GM crops] have urged Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to reconsider the decision to allow field trials and commercial c

Go to a Print friendly Page

Email this Article to a Friend

Back to the Archive