Cabinet is to decide today whether or not to allow open field trials of genetically modified plants, as the debate on the safety and commercial viability of these engineered crops rages on
By SUPAWADEE INTHAWONG
The question whether to allow open field trials of crops treated with genetically modified organisms - being put forward for a decision by the cabinet today - is not only a crucial one in itself, but is also closely related to other, even more critical dilemmas as well.
These include whether the country will lose its advantage in agricultural produce and products without fully embracing the technology; what mechanisms do we have to control or correct its contamination of the natural environment; will GM crops really solve the problems faced by our farmers, and whether consumers _ both here and in international markets _ will take to the still controversial crops easily?
The debate over GMOs has been going on for years and Thailand does not seem to be able to make up her mind which way to go: to fully explore the technology, or to go in the opposite direction and capture the GM-free, organic markets. The policy over the past few years has been to cautiously explore the possibility.
The issue has recently flared up, as a few members of the interim cabinet seem keen to push the country another step forward in the GM direction.
Early last month, Science and Technology Minister Yongyuth Yuthavong and Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Thira Sutabutra sought to forward for the cabinet's consideration a proposal for open field trials of GM plants.
Due to strong opposition from consumer, human rights and other groups working on agricultural issues, the proposal was stopped and sent back for a review by a committee headed by Deputy Prime Minister Paiboon Wattanasiritham.
The Paiboon committee proposed two alternatives:
*Continue the ban on open field trials both in government research facilities and private property;
*open field trials in government research facilities, but keep the ban on open field trials in private property.
Before being cleared for mass production, transgenic crops must pass three levels of biosafety tests - laboratory, greenhouse and open-field trials. Currently, Thailand only allows experiments at the laboratory and greenhouse levels, although there were reported leaks into farmland of GM cotton and papaya seeds in 1999 and 2004.
The Paiboon committee also recommended that any experiment more expansive than the controlled, in-the-lab kind should not be allowed until the country has in effect a bio-safety law capable of preventing and handling GM contamination, in case some of the engineered seeds are released into the natural environment.
As the decision will have a huge impact on a wide range of people, the committee also suggested that the interim cabinet leave the matter for the next, elected government to decide.
Proponents of the open field trials include the ministries of agriculture, science and technology, and natural resources and environment, plus a group of researchers working under the Biotechnology Alliance Association.
Their focus is on papaya, the chief ingredient in the hugely popular somtam salad. Their argument is that Thai papaya is facing a serious threat in the form of papaya ringspot virus. The plague has plunged local papaya growers into despair as they cannot produce enough fruit - reputed to be the best for making somtam - even if there is a high demand for it.
For the GMO supporters, the solution can be found in a papaya strain genetically engineered to be resistant to the virus.
Papaya growers in the Damnoen Saduak area of Ratchaburi province said they are not scared of the high-tech crops as they are already investing in all types of high-tech pesticide and fertiliser to fight off the ringspot virus - but in vain.
''If the GM papaya is disease-free, the yield would be good. We are not afraid of side-effects as we are already facing the risk of using large doses of chemical insecticide anyway,'' one farmer said.
He added that fruit growers in Damnoen Saduak district were very receptive of new technology.
''We don't mind the cost of investment. We have a limited amount of land. There is no way to increase the yield except to invest in advanced technology. The GM seeds may be more expensive but that is not a factor as our operations are already very costly these days,'' the farmer said.
Vitoon Lianchamroon of Biothai Foundation believes papaya farmers are being told only one side of the story - the brighter side.
He said the farmers have been misled into believing that GM crops would not need any fertiliser or insecticide to remain disease-free.
''Even BT cotton, said to be strong and resistant to diseases and tough weather, has succumbed to some other pests. It would be the same with viruses, which in case some people have not noticed, evolve very rapidly.
''Even though the GM papaya is made to withstand the ringspot virus, it may face other new, more dangerous strains,'' Mr Vitoon argued.
With many foreign markets - especially those in Europe - not open to GM foods, Mr Vitoon emphasised that farmers should study the lessons of GM growers in other countries who are having a hard time selling their produce, before adopting the technology.
The question of allowing open field trials must as well be considered in light of the country's ability to monitor and keep GM contamination in check.
In this respect, opponents have a point. The country may have banned any cultivation of GM crops outside the lab, but reports of GM papaya and cotton that were leaked to the market testifies to our inability to physically keep the crops under control.
Surawit Wannakrairoj, a biotechnologist at Kasetsart University, believes the country can advance its biotechnology prowess and glean enough bio-safety knowledge from laboratory or greenhouse trials.
Stepping up to open field trials would risk not only possible leakage into and contamination of the natural environment, but also would entail running an experiment without any effective control mechanisms, he said.
Eventually, it would lead simply to the release of genetically-modified crops into the market, Mr Surawit concluded.