Questions about food safety and stability in Thailand have arisen after the Cabinet on Tuesday approved the draft law on biosafety to legalise and regulate genetically modified organisms (GMOs). If endorsed by the National Legislative Assembly, this draft will become effective a year after being published in the Royal Gazette.
The cultivation of transgenic crop varieties for commercial purposes in Thailand is banned. In 2001, a leak of genetically modified (GM) cotton from government-run trial plots was discovered in the Northeast. Three years later, following heavy protests, the Cabinet rejected a proposal by the Ministry of Agriculture to lift the ban on field testing of GM crops.
While this government insists that the draft is aimed at controlling the use of modern biotechnology, especially genetic modification, to ensure safety for humans and the environment, many people and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have doubted and opposed the draft.
According to the Cabinet, the bill regulates the use of all kinds of GM plants and animals except those for lawfully controlled pharmaceutical tests. It also requires the establishment of the National Biosafety Committee to regulate and prevent the release of GMOs to the environment except those that have passed biosafety control tests, field tests and risk assessment tests and been put on permission lists. The draft law also requires GMO business operators to register with concerned agencies within 120 days after law enforcement.
In addition, this bill requires GMO business operators to pay compensation for any damage caused to humans and animal health or biodiversity by their "unregistered" GMO-related operations, except in cases where they can prove the damage was either unpreventable or done by the affected parties themselves.
However, many agencies have reportedly voiced their concerns. The National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB) reportedly suggested the bill to clearly prohibit the production, import and export of GMOs except those exempted by the committee.
It commented that this law involves GMO policies, which directly affect numerous sectors and that the promotion of GMOs may limit the scope of markets for Thai products and force Thai farmers to compete with producers who use high technology like the United States, badly affecting the country and farmers. It also suggested that the law impose measures to protect the farming system in case of contamination and require entrepreneurs to take responsibility for any damage caused from their operations. It suggested that GMO development be done to non-food items, such as orchids and ornamental fish, first and be initially tested in the public sector's labs.
The Ministry of Commerce also said that the change can cause great damage to food, farm produce and biodiversity, citing previous leaks of GMOs for testing to the ecological system.
Witoon Lianchamroon, director of Biothai, which has been campaigning against GMOs, worried that this draft would be cited by certain trade partner countries as a reason to impose trade barriers against Thailand and not to buy farm crops, such as sweetcorn and papaya. He also feared this would lead to a monopoly of plant seed sale since GMO plants and seeds are sold by a few big companies. He noted that this law would force countries with immense biodiversity and abundant food to grow patent-pending crops from these corporates.
On its Facebook page, Biothai claimed that Thailand was never open to the growing of GMO plants before the start of GMO plant growing trials by a foreign corporation in 1995. It added that this would be the first step in making Thailand become an agricultural colony of transnational companies.
Some years ago, Witoon, the Biothai director, and Assoc Prof Winai Dahlan, a nutritional expert from Chulalongkorn University who used to work for the Food and Drug Administration's research on GM food, gave me an interview on GMOs.
Witoon quoted foreign research as saying that GM plants do not give more yields than ordinary plants, but use far more chemicals, in general. He also cited news that a bad harvest and pests resistance in biotech cotton farms in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh in 2001 led to many farmers' financial losses and suicides. Moreover, the prices of patent-pending GM seeds tend to be more expensive than natural seeds in Thailand.
Also, it is not practical to impose the zoning rule in Thailand, where a majority of farmers have no more than two rai of farmland on average. Growing GM plants requires zoning to ensure no mixing of natural and GM species by accident, mainly through the air.
According to Assoc Prof Winai, the production and sale of seeds of GM plants is a monopoly. Seeds of GM plants are time-set to become invalid for recultivating after a certain period of time, meaning farmers will need to use seeds sold by the GM plant business indefinitely. Also, questions concerning biosafety for the environment and human health have yet to be answered. GM cuts the cycle for plants to develop themselves to fight insects and diseases naturally.
Last but not least, I agree with this academic that Thailand, one of the world's Top 10 food exporting countries, should not rely on plants from foreign countries. I doubt that Thais are faced with a food shortage and need to depend on GMOs; a practice that remains unacceptable in many other countries.
Pichaya Svasti is a writer of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.