BANGKOK - Thai environmentalists are banking on the country’s
courts to overturn a decision by the military-appointed government to
allow field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops.
A court battle is the only way to keep the country free
from being contaminated by GM crops say green groups aghast that the
government of Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has moved to secure
cabinet approval to permit field trials just two days after the Dec. 23
There also is anger at the military-backed government’s failure to
develop and pass a bio-safety law that would protect farmers and
consumers before lifting the ban for field trials.
‘’This has been a very sensitive public issue and any changes to the
ban should have been taken up by a government elected by the people,’’
Natwipha Ewasakul, genetic engineering campaigner for the South-east
Asia office of Greenpeace, the global environment lobby, told IPS. ‘’It
is not for a military-appointed government to do so. And it was done
two days after the general election, where most of the parties that
contested agreed to keep the ban in place.’’
The elections threw up a political party that campaigned on
the policies of the ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra won most
seats in the 480-member Lower House. But the People Power Party (PPP)
has been unable to form a government, since it did not secure a simple
majority. And the political wrangling and uncertainty that has followed
has given rise to a view that the Surayud administration may continue
in power after Jan. 23, when the new parliament is due to hold its
‘’What the military-appointed government did is unacceptable.
That is why we have decided to take this issue to the courts,’’ says
Witoon Lianchamroon, director of Biothai Foundation, a local
environmental group with a focus on bio-piracy, GM issues and the
rights of grassroots communities. ‘’We have already begun lab tests to
check samples of GM corn that researchers from a university discovered
in Phitsanulok (a north-central province).’’
Biothai, which has been in the vanguard of a campaign led by
non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to protect Thailand from GM
crops, was alerted to the plans to lift the ban in mid-2007. ‘’Since
August we had been monitoring the cabinet’s agenda to see if the
government was going to take this case up,’’ Witoon said in an
interview. ‘’On three occasions the GM issue was included in the
agenda, but the discussions were postponed.’’
At the time, it became evident that not all ministries were
united in the push to lift the ban. ‘’It was the ministry of
agriculture that wanted the ban lifted, while the ministries of
commerce, health and natural resources were not in favour,’’ added
Witoon. ‘’We now know who won: the ministry of agriculture, some Thai
scientists backing GM crops and the powerful lobby from the
multinational companies that want GM crops here.’’
Concern over GM crops being introduced to Thai agriculture
arose in 1999, when Biothai and other local green groups discovered GM
cotton plants, which had been imported by the multinational Monsanto,
in small farms. Such leakage was the first major incident since
Thailand had permitted the entry of GM crops for research in local
settings four years before. GM crops that were brought in for field
trials at the time included tomato, maize, rice, melon and papaya, in
addition to cotton.
Subsequently, NGOs mounted a campaign to compel Bangkok to ban
field trials of GM crops till a national bio-safety law was introduced.
The activists won a significant round in April 2001, when the newly
elected Thaksin government approved a resolution to ban field trials
till the legal safeguards to protect the health of consumers and the
small farmers were in place.
But such gain was short-lived, since Greenpeace released the
results of laboratory tests and studies in July 2005 pointing a finger
at the agriculture ministry for distributing GM papaya seeds to farmers
in three north-eastern provinces. ‘’Government papers also indicate
that GE contaminated papaya seeds may have been sold to 2,600 farmers
in 34 Thai provinces,’’ it added at the time.
The lifting of the ban in December only adds to the disregard
about the high cost Thailand will have to pay if the agriculture sector
is contaminated by GM crops, say academics who have joined forces with
NGOs to promote more organic farming. ‘’This is about food security at
many levels,’’ Piyasak Chaumpluk, assistant professor in the faculty of
science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told IPS. ‘’In addition
to the local farmers and consumers, it can affect the country’s exports
in the long run.’’
Thailand is a major food exporter, with rice being a mainstay,
making it the world's largest exporter of the grain. It also exports
fruits, like papaya, cassava, corn, sugarcane and soybeans. The
agriculture sector accounts for nearly 10 percent of the gross domestic
product (GDP) and draws close to 50 percent of the total labour force.
The food sector was hit following revelations of GM
contaminated papaya in 2005. The British-based supermarket chain,
Tesco, was among those that cancelled orders of the fruit. The German
government also launched an investigation after the exposure. Thai
exports of papaya dropped from 300 million baht (nine million US
dollars) before the revelation to 100 million baht (three million
dollars) the following year.
That came after the European Union (EU), which is a major
importer of Thai food products, warned rice exporters here in 1999 that
it would reject Thai rice if any GM organisms were found in the grain.
The EU’s policy on GM crops is broader, however, permitting the
cultivation and field trials of such crops in Europe after it has been
approved by the regional bloc.
European consumers are more resolute in keeping GM products
off the supermarket shelves. ‘’There is a lot of consumer resistance
towards GM products in Europe,’’ Patrick Deboyser, minister counsellor
for health and food safety at the EU’s Bangkok mission, told IPS. ‘’Few
GM products are offered for sale within the EU.’’
Activists like Witoon are hoping to draw on such realities to
push for the ban on field trials of GM crops to be reintroduced. ‘’An
EU ban on Thai agriculture products will affect the small farmers, who
are the poorest in the country. The next government has to address this
inevitable problem,’’ he said.
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