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 parliamentary elections.
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 first sitting.
‘’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.