The Thai-European Union Free Trade Agreement could deprive Thai farmers of access to affordable crop seeds, an academic and a farmers' advocate warn.
The EU has pushed Thailand to ratify the 1991 International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (Upov 1991) if Bangkok is to sign the FTA pact with the EU, law lecturer Somchai Ratanachueskul of the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce's School of Law said.
Under the Upov 1991, Thailand would be required to extend the period of protection of new plant breeds from 12 to 25 years, he said. This would force Thai farmers to buy seeds of plant varieties protected by the Upov at high prices.
Mr Somchai was speaking at a forum organised by the Thai Drug Watch, Chulalongkorn University Social Research Institute and the EU-Asean FTA Campaign Network at Chulalongkorn University yesterday.
"The impact of the Upov 1991 on Thailand would not be seen right after its implementation, but would appear after some years," Mr Somchai said.
Once Thailand becomes a party to the Upov 1991, agriculture would be gradually controlled by the private sector which receives wide protection from the convention, he said.
"The government seems not to be aware of the drawbacks of the Upov, so it is likely that the pact will be included in the Thai-EU FTA," Mr Somchai.
He added that it was also possible that the act would be used as a negotiating tool to compensate for other EU requests Thailand could not respond to.
The Commerce Ministry is expected to begin negotiations over the Thai-EU FTA in January following pressure from the private sector for the pact to come into force in 2015.
Farmers' advocate Witoon Lianchamroon, director of the Biodiversity and Community Rights Action Thailand (Biothai), said the Upov 1991 could lead to the monopolising of rice seed production by agribusiness firms.
At the moment rice, soya bean and green bean seeds have been developed under the public research institution and are sold to farmers at a cheap price.
However, most vegetable and crop seeds in the Thai market have already been monopolised by both domestic and foreign companies, he said.
"[Agribusiness firms] can make minor alterations to plant varieties and obtain rights protection [from Upov]," he said.
More than 3.5 million rice-farming families would be affected by the Upov 1991 and could fall deeper into poverty due to the rising cost of seeds, which might hit three times higher than the current price, the activist said.
This would mean the cost of seeds for seasonal rice crops would jump from 30 billion baht a year currently to as much as 100 billion baht a year after Thailand ratifies the convention.
Mr Witoon said civil groups and farmer networks had opposed the ratification of the Upov 1991 since the previous government and they were now worried the Yingluck Shinawatra administration will include it in the Thai-EU FTA talks.
He said farmers would protest against the Upov 1991 as soon as it is clear that it will be included in the FTA.
Piramol Charoenpao, director-general of the Trade Negotiations Department, which is in charge of the Thai-EU FTA negotiations, was not available for comment yesterday.
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Writer: Paritta Wangkiat