|The US battles for hearts and mouths in Asia (11/4/2006)|
1.A battle for hearts and mouths in Asia
EXCERPTS: U.S. officials from several agencies meet monthly in Washington to coordinate programs promoting biotechnology, a campaign intended to open markets for large companies like Monsanto that sell genetically modified seeds and related products.
The United States, which plants more than half of the world's acreage of genetically modified crops, is seeking to influence the Asian biotechnology debate through conferences, sponsored trips for farmers and journalists, and trade negotiations.
1.A battle for hearts and mouths
BANGKOK There won't be any news conferences or popping flash bulbs when U.S. officials meet with their Southeast Asian counterparts here this week to discuss biotechnology. The meeting, sponsored by the United States, is intended to be a low-key discussion where participants "share and analyze their major concerns" about genetically modified crops, according to the invitation.
But the larger context of the seminar is more important than the quiet preparations would suggest. Asia is caught in the middle of a high-stakes debate over biotechnology, the outcome of which could determine whether genetically modified food is adopted worldwide or remains primarily grown and consumed in the Americas.
Sandwiched between skeptical Europe and gung-ho America, the world is watching to see which way Asia will tilt.
"The fight is actually in Asia," said Chee Yoke Ling, a lawyer based in Kuala Lumpur who has followed the issue of genetically modified organisms for a decade. "This is where you have the biggest market. If a country like China decides it can produce food without GMOs, then it would swing the world away from the technology."
Asian countries are sending mixed signals on the issue. They are aggressively pursuing the next generation of biotechnology plants, conducting hundreds of field trials involving genetically modified rice, tomatoes, palms for palm oil and many other crops. And they are competing with each other for biotechnology investment. The Chinese government spends well over $100 million on biotech crop research annually, more than any other government outside the United States.
But there is also growing caution in Asia about the technology. Thailand has refused to lift its moratorium on biotechnology crop testing, Japanese consumers remain skeptical, and the Malaysian government has been bogged down by eight years of debate over a law on biosafety.
Many governments, especially in Southeast Asia, fear that if they adopt biotechnology crops there could be a backlash from Europe, where many consumers remain fiercely opposed. When experimental modified rice being cultivated in Hubei Province in China leaked into the food chain in April 2005, the European Union expressed its concern to the Chinese government, a possible harbinger of further trade tensions.
"The government was alarmed and is now very careful," said Xue Dayuan, a professor at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science and an official at the State Environmental Protection Administration.
The United States, which plants more than half of the world's acreage of genetically modified crops, is seeking to influence the Asian biotechnology debate through conferences, sponsored trips for farmers and journalists, and trade negotiations. The U.S. government is paying for airfares and hotel rooms for some of the delegates attending the seminar next week, one example of its efforts to raise awareness of biotechnology.
U.S. officials from several agencies meet monthly in Washington to coordinate programs promoting biotechnology, a campaign intended to open markets for large companies like Monsanto that sell genetically modified seeds and related products. Asian governments have their own reasons for embracing biotechnology. Some crops are genetically modified to be resistant to diseases or pests; others allow farmers to reduce the amount of pesticide they use.
The overall effect can be higher productivity, say the champions of the technology, and thus cheaper and more plentiful food in a region that is home to nearly two-thirds of humanity.
Much of the debate about biotechnology crops in Asia is centered in China, both because of its size and because Chinese scientists are leading the wave of experimentation in the region, with field trials of genetically modified cabbage, corn, melons, papaya, peanuts, potatoes, soybeans, tomatoes, tobacco and wheat, among others, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, a research organization based in the Philippines that promotes the use of biotechnology.
In addition, Chinese farmers already grow genetically modified cotton across 3.3 million hectares, an area roughly the size of Belgium and the largest such plantings outside the Americas.
But the biggest test will be the Chinese government's decision on commercialization of genetically modified rice. A government committee is reviewing several varieties of rice, all of which have been engineered to resist insects or disease through the insertion of genes from other plants or bacteria. Approval for China's modified rice was widely expected last year, but the government delayed its decision.
"It will probably still take some time before it is approved - there are more studies that need to be done," said Lu Baorong, a scientist who specializes in rice at the College of Life Sciences at Fudan University in Shanghai and a member of the government approval committee.
The commercialization of modified rice would be an important milestone because it is such a crucial food in the region. Rice is different from soybeans and corn, which are often used in animal feed or, if consumed by humans, are heavily processed before they reach the consumer. Rice could be consumed directly, and thus the government is being cautious, scientists say.
But Lu said in a telephone interview that caution should not be confused with fear of the technology.
"China is really promoting biotechnology," he said. "China is taking the North American policy or point of view in terms of biosafety and biotechnology."
The wild card in China, as with other countries in Asia, is the public. Experts are watching the evolution of public opinion as activist groups like Greenpeace seek to slow or stop the commercialization of modified crops. Greenpeace said in March that it had found traces of experimental rice in Heinz baby cereal, a charge that the company refuted by revealing test results from six separate laboratories. The Chinese government said Friday that its own tests had also found no evidence of modified rice.
"I think the trend is that concerns are spreading and more and more countries are adopting stricter legislation," said Isabelle Meister, a researcher on biotech issues in the Beijing office of Greenpeace.
Japan, South Korea and China have enacted laws requiring labeling for food with a certain level of modified content, a move opposed by the United States.
Activists say there are too many uncertainties surrounding modified crops: they could disturb wild species, especially in Asia where rice and soy are native, or cause allergies among consumers, the activists assert.
A report released last year by the food safety department of the World Health Organization sought to allay some of these fears by concluding that "GM foods currently available on the international market have undergone risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health any more than their conventional counterparts."
Global awareness about biotechnology varies greatly. Consumers in the United States, where genetically modified corn, soybeans, squash, papaya, cotton and canola are sold in different forms, have been among the least conscious of it. A poll in November by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that 58 percent of U.S. consumers were not aware that modified food was being sold in grocery stores.
Consumers in China may not have any greater awareness. Xue, the professor at the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science, conducted a study of 1,000 consumers in 12 supermarkets in Beijing in 2004 and found that 65 percent of those surveyed were not "acquainted" with the idea of genetically modified products.
Huang Jikun, director of the Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said awareness was rising because of China's labeling law, which was enacted in 2002 and stipulates that genetically modified soybeans, corn, rapeseed, cotton and tomatoes must be clearly labeled, including processed products in which the modified ingredient cannot be detected.
One important indicator of acceptance, he said, is modified soybean oil, which is made from imported soybeans and has carried special labeling for three years.
"We found that people continued to buy it," Huang said. "Market share of GMO soybean oil is increasing."
As for rice, Huang conducted a two- year survey in 2002 and 2003, polling a total of 2,005 people in 11 large Chinese cities, and found that two-thirds "approve of GMO rice," he said. Only about 10 percent were against, he said, and the rest were indifferent.
If China goes ahead with commercialization of modified rice, it will be a major step toward wider acceptance of biotechnology crops, but it will not be a global first. Iran announced in February that farmers there had been authorized to grow a variety of genetically modified rice that was produced with help from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.
But Iran, too, is having second thoughts. A recent report in the newspaper Shargh said the government would slow or stop large-scale cultivation of the rice until approval from "relevant international organizations," without explaining who that might be.
2.The future of farming
Thailand is at a crossroads. Given its progress in agricultural know-how, the agricultural sector will have to decide what direction it wants to take. 'Outlook' explores two possibilities here - organic farming and the path of biotechnology
A name change switching to promotion of non-food crops approaching farmers' groups - these are some of the strategies that Sutat Sriwatanapongse, current president of the Biotechnology Alliance Association (BAA), has adopted in pushing for public acceptance of genetically modified (GM) crops.
"From now on, we'll refer to them as 'phuet cheewaphap' or biotech crops instead," said the senior scientist. "The term 'GM' has apparently scared off many people. The new coinage will make it sound a little like 'pui cheewaphap' [usually applied to nonchemical fertilisers]. lt may cause some confusion initially, but after a while, it will likely become part of the daily usage."
As the founding head of BAA, Sutat conceded he originally accepted the post as an "interim president". But there has been "pressure" for hirn to renew his term, he noted in a casual tone. "So before quitting for good, l'd like to see the BAA in a secure position, including financially."
Established in 2004, the BAA has been perceived differently depending on which side of the GM debate one is on. The opposition questions the ties between the organisation and some multinationals and special interest groups that seil GM technology/ products (including Monsanto, Novartis, Syngenta, Bayer and so on), in particular a US-based agency called the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (Isaaa). Some leading biotech industry executives also sit on lsaaa's board of directors.
Sutat insisted, though, that the BAA's mandate is to serve as a "knowledge centre" to create better understanding based on scientific grounds. There has been a lot of irrational "fear" spread around about negative health and environmental effects ofthe GM products, he lamented.
"Yes, lsaaa has been supporting us after it closed its branch office in Bangkok and transferred its work to us," Sutat said. "Our association has been, however, trying to strike a balance between public and private sources of funding. The state agencies tend to act hesitant toward us and private companies have to be careful about their image; they can't come out to give explicit support that much."
lndeed, Sutat's designated task - of promoting controversial GM products among Thai farmers and consumers - has never been easy. Thailand continues to ban all field tests of GM crops, following a Cabinet resolution issued on April 3, 2001. In August 2004, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had to quickly drop his proposal to revoke the moratorium after facing heavy protests by a coalition of farmers, consumers, campaigners and food exporters.
In Sutat's views, Thailand has lost many "opportunities" over the past decade, a poignant point considering that Thailand was one of the very first countries in Asia to pioneer the drafting of bio-safety guidelines and the subsequent field testing of transgenic tomato and cotton crops (until the scandal over the leak of GM cotton seeds in 1999). Sutat noted thatthe guidelines were published in 1993, a year after he returned to Thailand to work as deputy director of the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, or Biotec.
Now we are "behind" even Vietnam, he said. In a socialist regime, say Vietnam or China, things tend to move much faster, the scientist observed.
"lt is more complicated in a 'very democratic' country like ours," Sutat said. "We do have the National Biotechnology Policy with clearly stipulated timeframes, but what's stated therein never transpires according to the schedule."
lt's not too late to catch up, though, Sutat swiftly added. We have plenty of laboratories and personnel with doctorate degrees in the field. The BAA has been focusing on creating an "informal network" with tertiary educational institutes, especially the newly established ones. Sutat mentioned in passing how the staff at Biotec and the Department of Agriculture occasionally came to give lectures at the BAA's meetings and workshops.
lmportantly, the BAA has developed a cioser rapport with some farmers1 groups. "We have been working with academics for 10 years, but the voice is still not Ioud enough."
Recently, they have been sponsoring "study trips" for rural people (and some media) to visit biotech labs and fields - at Kasetsart University (Kamphaengsaen campus), the Philippines, India and as far away as Hawaii.
The change of tactics seems to have yielded better fruit. Sutat mentioned a certain "Assembly of Northeastern Farmers" (of which the secretary-general has been on one of the study trips to Hawaii, he said) that has started making calls for the government to allow field tests of CM papayas - incidentally, the same line pushed forward by BAA and its allies. A similar move was repeated in January this year by another group allegedly representing farmers in the Central region.
"But our Job is to educate the people, not to stage rallies," Sutat affirmed. To make these "biotech crops" more palatable to the Thai public, Sutat said we might have to begin with non-food items like flowers and decorative plants and cotton. Himself a veteran plant breeder, Sutat listed potential research topics: GM glow-inthe-dark orchids and aquarium fish. He hoped they would attract less opposition and thus not risk being abandoned as their predecessors had been.
Personally, the scientist still sees high potential in CM papayas - and other food crops (tomatoes, yard-long beans and chillis) that "perfectly make up the somtam dish". He cited an anecdote that once after a meeting at Parliament, some politicians came up to ask him in person for samples of CM papaya seeds. "1 had to teil them that that was not possible yet - 1 would be breaking the law!" he said.
"On the other hand, there has not been any [recent] development of CM rice, even though we know that it will be safe," he noted. "[This is because] Thailand is one of the world's major exporters, but biotechnology has not yet been approved worldwide, so the policy has been to postpone [introduction of biotech rice in order to avoid potential contamination] up until now."
Such concerns about losing the country's coveted status for the staple commodity are exactly what Surawit Wannakrairoj, biotechnologist from Kasetsart University (where Sutat also graduated), said should be applied to non-food transgenic crops. "True, plants like orchids may not be for human consumption, but any premature introduction of transgenic versions [before implementation of proper bio-safety measures] could be raised by our rivals to erode our market access" - because other countries might be afraid of GM contamination.
"Even Singapore has not tried to introduce commercial cultivation of GM orchids, despite having done research in the area. lt must have already calculated that such a scheme could become a sore point used by other trading competitors as a form of trade barrier."
One of the few Thal scientists to express concern about the potential risks of transgenic crops, Surawit said he was not against them per se.
"What l'm saying is that the present safety assessment as it exists now is still inadequate," he said. "And 1 mean not only human, but also bio-safety aspects. Those proponents operate on a different paradigm - they assume that GM products have been safe to begin with so they only look for 'substantial equivalence' between ordinary and transgenic crops. They accept a margin of error by one to five per cent. "In contrast, the more critical camp adopts precautionary principles. When it comes to human safety, we cannot bear to take any risk. Think about pharmaceutical research, even after rigorous tests and evaluation by relevant agencies, up to 10 per cent of the drugs have been regularly found to exert serious side effects and three to five per cent have to be recalled by the companies. But we can never 'recall' those transgenic living organisms once they are leaked into fields, can we?"
Considering the rather dismal track records of the past "tests" of GM crops in Thailand, notably the leaks of transgenic cotton and papaya seeds, Sutat appeared very optimistic.
"Without the field trials, we can't answer the question of whether or not the [GM] crops will pose a hazard to the environment. How to prevent leaks? lt all depends on how we regulate it. We should weigh the pros and cons. lt's like intellectual property - we can't ensure a 100 per cent safeguard.
"Will it affect the food cham? lt's unlikely. After the harvest, all the [modified] genes will be gone. If one thinks too much, one can't do anything."
For the former director of the Thailand Biodiversity Centre, the promise of GM crops exceeded the possible risks. Sutat claimed studies had found that the switch to GM seeds had led to a reduction in the use of toxic chemicals by 50 to 80 per cent. This could be a reason why some parties have orchestrated opposition to GM produce, he suggested.
Asked whether he had ever considered that the very companies that are promoting GM seeds are also the ones that have been selling the agri-chemicals, Sutat said every company has been competing to develop the [GM] technology, but those that are lagging behind are trying to stern the tide."
In fact, Sutat believes GM and organic crops could peacefully co-exist. "I'd like to see GM crops as another option for farmers. 1 want to teil the organic farmers that using GM seeds might be beneficial for them, since they wouldn't have to use bio-insecticides like sadao [neem]. But 1 know organic farmers in the US and the UK wouldn't accept this [proposal]."
While at Biotec (Sutat worked there from 1992 to 1999), he said representatives of seed companies had approached hirn to discuss the possibility of turning Thailand into a hub for GM seed manufacturing.
"Even if we were not going to use the seeds ourselves, we could at least export them, they said to me. That reminded me of how some Filipino farmers had to import GM maize seeds from South Africa. They asked rne why Thailand couldn't produce for them instead."
In retrospect, Sutat's career has intriguingly straddled public and private sectors, local and overseas. lt included two separate stints at the Mexican Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo (International Maize and Wheat lmprovement Centre, or CIMMYT), then serving as research manager for a joint venture between a transnational seed company called Dekalb AgResearch and Thai agro-conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Group, before switching to teaching at Kasetsart University. Before retirement, he rigorously promoted GM technology while at Biotec and the Thailand Biodiversity Centre, the latter of which he helped found.
The BAA will probably be his last contribution to Thailand - and interestingly enough, maize, which Sutat has been breeding all his life, will be part of it. He said his association is now sponsoring a "minor study" on maize at "Farm Suwan".
"What both lsaaa and BAA are trying to show is that biotechnology is not harmful. lt's like nuclear technology, or fire and cars - there are benefits and drawbacks. lt depends on how you use it. But what we are hoping for is that even though there is still a lot of debate over the technology right now, eventually the 'controversial' crops will become 'conventional', widely accepted by the mainstream public."
The Biotechnology Alliance Association (BAA) has a web site at thaibaa.org with links to other related organisations and foundations. For opposition views, see www.gmwatch.org and the Institute of Science in Society's homepage at www.isis. org.uk