Cabinet wisely moved yesterday to postpone a decision on whether to allow open field trials for genetically modified organisms (GMOs).Since ministers have just a short time left in office, they should let the next elected government make a decision on this emotionally charged issue, which has many facets to consider, from economics to environment to social justice. Any future decision must find a balance between all of these considerations. Economically, GM foods can increase crop yields. Indeed, papaya farmers in Ratchaburi have been outspoken proponents of GM food after persistent ringspot disease almost wiped out the famous Damnoen papaya, named after Damnoen Saduak district. Farmers have struggled to fill orders due to the depleted crops and Thailand has actually needed to import papayas from neighbouring countries. With GM foods, advocates say, farmers would have higher yields year-in and year-out, which would boost the rural economy and make Thailand more competitive in the world market.
While this sounds great, detractors point out several concerns. Since GM seeds are patented, farmers would have to pay more for them and continually buy them every year at high prices. Farmers say they aren’t worried about that so much; the money saved on pesticides and the higher yields would offset the increased expenditure on seeds. Anti-GM activists say the problems would come if the GM plants that prove resistant to one insect or disease succumbto a new, evolved disease. Proponents say that’s exactly what the open field trials should determine, so they should go forward.The other economic issue is finding a market for GM goods. Thailand must decide whether it wants to carve out a competitive niche by marketing organic food or GM food. The European Union has already banned imports of GM food, and the global trend may be for other countries to follow suit.
Besides economic issues, activists claim that GM foods carry risks to the environment. Studies show that some GMOs can lead to diminished populations of certain bugs and insects. This could disrupt the entire eco-system, they claim, potentially leading to swarms of new insects or diseases that could destroy other plants. Again, the field trials would presumably test these concerns, but once the genie leaves the bottle it’s quite difficult to put it back. Moreover, some activists claim that the research declaring GM food safe, which includes up to 47 peer-reviewed studies, fails to adequately investigate the long-term effects that GMOs could have on health.
Controlling the GM seeds is also a major environmental issue. Activists want laws and mechanisms in place that will ensure GM seeds are restricted to certain areas to prevent contamination with non-GM fields. Thailand’s record on this is already spotty. In 1999 and 2004, GM cotton and papaya seeds were reportedly leaked out to the public. To prevent this, activists are urging the government to at least pass a biosafety law that has been in the works for years. The law contains safety guidelines for field trials, compensation for those affected by GM crops and measures placing restrictions on GM imports and exports.
Finally, any cabinet decision must be based on social justice. First and foremost, this means that an elected government should decide this issue. This also involves respecting divergent views. The National Human Rights Commission has actually called for the biosafety law to be dropped altogether because it may lead to GM food production, while Greenpeace has never been shy about pulling publicity stunts to further its anti-GM agenda.
Instead of the extreme rhetoric from both sides, a compromise solution shouldn’t be too hard to find. For instance, the government could put in place stringent laws to control the open field tests combined with proper labelling so consumers can make the decision. But until those mechanisms are in place, any government should proceed with caution.