Food fight: the battle over the future of farming
As farmers and activists resist a new law that would permit GM crops, modified produce is already making its way to the tables of unsuspecting consumers.
When Winus Srisombatraethong purchased green papaya seeds from farmers in Pathum Thani province in 2009, he had no reason to suspect anything unusual.
But over the next four years, he made a startling discovery: the seeds were surprisingly resistant to disease and he suspected they were genetically modified.
The realisation left him in a predicament. Mr Winus not only produced papaya for export, but also acted as a middleman between farmers and export companies.
Supplying GM produce, which is subject to more stringent regulation or even bans in many export markets, would make business difficult.
When the European Union began intensifying its inspections of agricultural imports in 2013, Mr Winus was left with nowhere to hide.
“I managed to work around the inspection [initially] by sending in a leaf sample from a non-GM papaya,” Mr Winus said.
“But when it grew more serious, random inspections were made on the whole crop.” As he sought out new crops to replace his GM papaya, Mr Winus gathered about 50 papaya samples from Pathum Thani and, using his own money, took them for testing in the lab at Kasetsart University.
All of the samples turned out to be genetically modified.
“I concluded that 99% of the papaya grown in Pathum Thani was genetically modified,” he said, speculating that the same can be said for all papaya grown in the Central region.
Mr Winus destroyed all the crops on his five rai plot of land, which at the time had about 1,200 papaya trees.
Staff from the Agriculture Department provided him with seeds of a non-GM variety. But the new crops contracted the ringspot virus, a common disease found in papaya-growing countries, and Mr Winus found himself once again unable to export his produce.
Now, he is back to growing GM papayas, selling them to markets and som tam vendors.
“The middlemen know [that the papayas are genetically modified], but they don’t care,” he said. “Thais aren’t serious about GMOs, as long as the products are edible.”
Two decades since the introduction of genetically modified organisms in Thailand, the country is still in a battle over the legalisation of such crops, as activists and farmers protest against draft legislation that would introduce a regulatory framework to allow for domestic GMO cultivation.
But even without the new regulations, GM crops are already being grown across the country. Some experts point to government carelessness for allowing it to happen, while others say it is simply proof that the march of GM produce is unstoppable.
A WELL-KEPT SECRET?
GM contamination in papaya was first reported in Thailand in 2004, when a field trial was being conducted on transgenic papaya. It was only the second time such a large-scale trial of GM crops had been conducted, after one on cotton in Loei province in 1995.
At the time, the experimental GM papaya was grown in a field at a state-run research station in Khon Kaen province.
In 2006, the Khon Kaen provincial court acquitted two Greenpeace activists who were accused of trespassing at the research station and destroying state property. The pair had played a role in exposing that GM seeds from the research station had been illegally sold and distributed to commercial farmers in at least 37 provinces.
bit of a blight: Farmers say most papaya in the Central region are genetically modified.
As a result of the leak, a committee to investigate the contamination of GM papaya was set up under then agriculture and cooperatives minister Somsak Thepsutin.
“The committee concluded that the contamination was due to ‘an insider’ from the ministry,” said Witoon Lianchamroon, director of the BioThai Foundation, a non-profit group that works to protect farmers’ rights and biodiversity. Mr Witoon was a member of the committee at the time.
Thailand currently has no laws controlling the research and study of GM crops. Recent laboratory tests of papaya samples confirmed that GM papaya had spread throughout many provinces across the country.
In 2005, Greenpeace and the National Human Rights Commission collected papaya samples from plantations which had sourced their seeds from the Khon Kaen research station, and sent them to the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology and Mahidol University for testing. The lab results showed that 11 of the samples were genetically modified.
In 2013, BioThai and Chulalongkorn University’s Science Department conducted a joint survey, collecting 367 crop samples from 36 provinces. The results were submitted to CU’s Laboratory of Plant Transgenic Technology and Biosensor, and were cross-checked by SGS, a verification and testing company.
Results showed that out of the 96 papaya samples, 16 collected from Nakhon Pathom, Ratchaburi, Phetchaburi, Kanchanaburi and Chiang Mai were genetically modified. Out of the 167 corn samples, 14 were genetically modified. “The results showed that the strain was the same as the one from the 2004 field test, which shows the government’s negligence,” Mr Witoon said.
“Releasing those samples in the first place might have been in the interest of some groups of people who want to have GM papaya in Thailand. That person might be a government official who did not think of the negative consequences that would occur.”
While there are no regulations against growing GM crops, it remains illegal to import GMOs under the Plant Quarantine Act, although soy beans are exempted for industrial use. It means farmers who grow GM papaya are potentially violating this law, because the GM seeds they use were initially imported for use in the Khon Kaen trial.
The government is pressing ahead with the enactment of a controversial bill to regulate GMOs, despite mounting pressure from farmers and activists who fear the legislation would open the door to widespread GMO use. Government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said last Wednesday that a law is needed to control any possible damage from GM crops.
“We have to admit that GM products have been marketed in the country without laws to regulate them,” Maj Gen Sansern said, but fell short of admitting that such crops are currently grown in the country.
The two field trials and concerns of contamination led to a cabinet resolution in April 2001 for the drafting of the biosafety bill to control and supervise GMOs. But the draft was never approved due to staunch opposition from farmers and activists.
“Politicians are concerned about losing votes, so it was impossible at that time,” said Ananta Dalodom, a former director-general of the Agriculture Department.
“Now I think the National Council for Peace and Order is listening to scientists more as they do not have to be concerned about votes. That is why they can pass the law at great speed.”
Farmers growing non-GM crops are not only concerned that their crops will be contaminated, resulting in the inability to export their products. Those who spoke to Spectrum also feared the disease-resistant qualities of GM crops could lead to an oversupply which would force down market prices.
But Prapat Panyachatsaksa, chairman of the National Farmers Council, said GM crops' disease resistance was disputable, and that crops such as papaya have never had supply issues.
He said that although the issue of GM crops affecting exports is a concern for farmers, what is more worrying is the potential for multinational corporations to hold a monopoly over the food supply through seed patents.
“We would have to become their slaves by purchasing their seeds,” he said.
“This will result in less self-dependence, eventually resulting in an agricultural collapse. We are not against GMOs or the new biosafety bill, but we want careful selection of GM items, particularly when it comes to food products as opposed to non-food items like rubber and cotton.”
Mr Ananta said allowing open-field trials is crucial to assess the effects of GMOs on the environment and consumption.
“If the results are negative, we don’t have to move forward with GMOs. But if there is no research at all, the changing climate will make the problems of agriculture even more severe, and we would need crops that can adapt towards unfavourable environments,” he said.
“GMO is not about the present, but the future. And we need research fast.”
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, as of 2013 GMOs are grown, imported and/or used in field trials in 70 countries. Last year, 28 countries planted GM crops, while the global value of GM seeds was about US$15.7 billion, or 565.8 billion baht.
In the Asean region, GM crops are already grown in the Philippines and Myanmar, with Indonesia and Vietnam the most recent adopters.
Thailand imports most of its soy beans from the US, the largest producer of GM crops with about 40% of global hectarage.
“Think about all those years we’ve consumed GM soy beans,” said Mr Ananta, who is also president of the Horticultural Society of Thailand.
“It’s not fair that we’re allowing imports but banning research. Why don’t we just produce it ourselves then?”
WHAT THE LAW SAYS
Following calls from the public last week to halt the biosafety bill, the government said representatives of farmers and activists will be allowed to air their opinions and share information during vetting of the legislation, but that it was impossible to delay its passage.
The bill, which would legalise all GMO plants and animals, except those used for medical experiments, was submitted to the cabinet on Nov 24.
Under the legislation, a “biosafety board”, chaired by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment permanent secretary, will be established to regulate GMOs. The committee would have the authority to ban the production or importation of GMO plants, animals or micro-organisms and approve a list of items modified with GMOs which can be released into the environment.
The bill will legalise laboratory and field trials of GM crops, but the government will have the authority to temporarily suspend a trial if there is any evidence that it is unsafe, according to the 18-page draft seen by Spectrum.
An item that has passed a trial may receive a permit to be released into the environment. An expert committee will report the outcome within 90 days of receiving a risk assessment. A public hearing will be held once approved.
In the event of damage to health and biodiversity caused by a GMO that is not on the approved list, the importer would be responsible for compensation unless it can prove the damage was an accident.
At present, there are labelling laws in place for GM soy beans and corn used in food, but only if they are one of the three main ingredients in a particular product. The draft legislation makes no mention of expanding these labelling regulations.
If endorsed by the NLA, the bill will come into effect a year after being published in the Royal Gazette.
Several multinational seed companies, such as Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta, already sell GM seeds here. East-West Seed Thailand, however, is one of the few companies going against the GMO trend, with its continued research in traditional breeding.
“We are curious in terms of scientific progress, but economically, we don’t think there’s a whole lot of advantage for GMO in vegetables,” said East-West Seed Group president Bert van der Feltz.
The company, which exports to more than 60 countries and claims a domestic market share of 38-40% of tropical vegetable seeds, started introducing its first variety of cross pollinated “hybrid papaya” into the market four years ago, but they were not disease resistant. The second variety was introduced three years ago as “fresh papaya”, the sweeter, yellow fruit.
Through its conventional breeding programme, which is produced by cross-pollinating plants of the same species, the company on Saturday will launch its first green papaya variety which it claims has the same resistance and yield as genetically modified papaya.
EWTH’s new variety — called “papaya somtam” — has been tested in Pathum Thani, Suphan Buri and Nakhon Ratchasima provinces in more than 10 fields.
The company believes the product, produced under the Sorndaeng (red arrow) brand, will provide another alternative for farmers producing for export, although the price of hybrid seeds can be more than double the open-pollinated equivalent.
“Farmers don’t ask whether it’s GMO or not. They choose the crops that are resistant to diseases,” Mr van der Feltz said.
But the results the farmers saw in the field trial in Khon Kaen began to lose their magic as the seeds reproduced.
Hybrid and GMO seeds are designed to be used for a single commercial harvest, after which the disease resistance and other beneficial traits will diminish.
“That was what we saw with the GM papaya seeds that originated from Khon Kaen,” said Mr van der Feltz. “The resistance went down, but they are still GMO.”
Thailand’s food exports faced a hurdle about three years ago as a result of increased detection of GM contamination in papaya.
The European Union first detected GM contamination in papaya from Thailand in 2006, according to the European Commission’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed.
From 2012 until now, a total of 42 cases of contamination were reported, all of which were papaya. In 2013, Japan increased random inspection of papaya and derivative products from Thailand to 30% of all imports, after an inspection of a dried papaya showed it contained GM ingredients.
Since then, exporters of papaya products to the EU and Japan have had to obtain a non-GMO certificate from the Agriculture and Cooperatives Ministry, with random inspections conducted at the destination country.
According to the Office of Agricultural Economics, Thailand last year exported 719,653kg of fresh papaya worth 30.76 million baht. Of the total, 6,465kg were exported to the EU worth 237,180 baht, down from 20,000kg worth 914,550 baht in 1998.
Problems are likely to continue, as farmers still have little awareness of GM crops.
“I believe that most farmers don’t know that they are planting GM crops, as what they grow depends largely on the business providing them with the funds or the end market,” said Piyasak Chaumpluek, an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University’s Botany Department.
Visit Limlurcha, president of the Thai Food Processors’ Association, said the new biosafety legislation may have a severe effect on food exporters, as inspections will likely be extended to other products.
“It will show that we accept GMO production, and it will be harder to differentiate GM from non-GM crops,” he said. “The government is sending a mixed message if they try to move forward with the bill, and at the same time promote organic crops.”
Mr Winus, the Pathum Thani papaya grower, is still hoping that he can return to planting non-GM papaya seeds for export, since they provide a better income than domestic sales.
But he also admits that the passing of the new GMO bill has its benefits.
“I don’t think there is any harm,” he said. “We’ve already been importing GM soy beans for decades, and now we’ve been consuming a whole lot of GM papaya.”
Growing concern: Activists protest against the proposed GM law last week, saying it would give multinationals too much control over the food supply.
Branching out: East-West Seed Group president Bert van der Feltz.
Ripe and ready: East-West Seed Group’s ‘somtam papaya’ variety has been tested in more than 10 fields in three provinces.
Seeds of less doubt: East-West Seed Group’s new ‘somtam papaya’ variety, to be launched next week, claims to have the same level of resistance to disease as GMO papaya.