Tests in research stations make a mockery of GM ban (27/12/2007)

Tests in research stations make a mockery of GM ban
Bangkok Post, Dec 28 2007

[Vasana Chinvarakorn is a senior writer for Outlook, Bangkok Post]

The tussle is over wording, but the implications will not be limited to paper only. The cabinet's resolution on Christmas Day to ''amend'' the 2001 ban on all field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops seems to be playing with the definition of the key phrase in the legislation: ''field trials''. As a year-end gift to Thai citizens, the Surayud government has decided that the term ''field trials'' does not apply to experiments conducted in state-run compounds.

In other words, GM papaya, cotton, maize, and so on will be able to germinate in the soil at research stations belonging to the Department of Agriculture or in universities, be they in Khon Kaen, Nakhon Pathom or Pathum Thani.

The news of Tuesday's cabinet meeting caught the environmental NGOs and supporters of organic agriculture completely off guard.

After a series of campaigns urging the military-appointed government not to revoke or revise the historic ban of April 3, 2001, the anti-GMO camp is now at a loss.

Two days after the general election, the interim cabinet hastily dealt with 51 items on its agenda, of which the GM crop issue was item No. 42.

Almost as an afterthought, the powers-that-be have added the stipulation that, in light of the absence of national bio-safety laws, the state agency in charge of GM testing must ensure that maximum precautionary measures are implemented to prevent contamination, and to conduct an environmental impact assessment study for the immediate research site and surrounding areas.

Some form of ''public hearing'' with the local residents and stakeholders must also be arranged in compliance with Article 67 of the 2007 Constitution - or so it has been reported in the news.

According to the anti-GMO groups, these add-on clauses are not adequate enough to allay their apprehension. They argue that the ''public hearing'' is likely to be a charade of consensus: a number of farmers will likely be contacted by the biotechnology industry (and its bureaucratic allies) and sent on study visits to local and foreign GM labs and fields; in short, they will be groomed to think positively vis-a-vis the GMO technology.

Over the past couple of years, a few self-appointed representatives of farmers in the Central and Northeast regions have come out to push for a lifting of the ban on field trials of GM papaya _ which incidentally is the same line adopted by the biotech business and researchers.

One should also note that field tests are but a step away from the commercialisation of GM crops.

The writing is on the wall.

Also, the dismal track record pertaining to state-run testing of GM cotton and papaya, where numerous GM seeds have been leaked to farmers living hundreds of kilometres away, makes one question the efficacy of these ''precautionary measures''.

(The latest incident, involving the discovery of GM maize in Phitsanulok, serves to strengthen these doubts.) Intriguingly, no culprit has ever been caught, nor has any attempt been made to explain how the contamination occurred and the ways in which the damage may be corrected.

In contrast, three activists who exposed the contaminations have been tried in court, and one has been penalised for defamation (against a former senior technocrat who continues to push actively for the introduction of GM crops in Thailand).

Following the announcement of the Christmas resolution, the anti-GMO camp has announced they will seek an emergency halt of all field trials of GM crops from the Administrative Court early next year.

A new era of contest thus begins.

It promises to be fierce, relentless _ and probably gloomy.

The latest legal development reflects the Thai ingenuity in word-play; shall we call it semantic acrobatics?

It also reveals the priorities of a government that supposedly prides itself on following His Majesty the King's sufficiency philosophy: a government that allows open field tests when even a public environmental agency has admitted as recently as last month to our inability to ''clean up'' this genetic crop contamination.

Last but not least, it reveals a shameless indiscipline on the part of our leaders. Past mistakes, especially of those at the top, are conveniently absolved by new laws, or are swept under the carpet and eventually forgotten.

To some, this latest episode in the saga of GM field testing in Thailand may appear to be a tussle over wording, but the implications reach down to the very roots of our sustenance.

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