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Thailand's GMO experiment - Part 2

PHUKET: If you are a regular consumer of somtum, soy milk (and all other soya products), corn products, cereals, chips, crisps, tomatoes, bread and even rice – you may have unknowingly been part of a global GMO (genetically modified organism) experiment that's been going on for the last two decades, and make no mistake – the experiment is far from over.

By Steven Layne

Tuesday 10 June 2014, 06:41PM

In the first part of this two-part article (click here), we briefly talked about how the advent of biotechnology has come to reshape the nature – literally and figuratively – of agricultural produce and dependent food chains across the planet, especially here in Thailand.

In this conclusion, we will shed light on the kingdom's history concerning biotechnology, and in particular GMOs. The aim of this article is not to scare readers, but simply to provide a clearer picture on the past and present state of affairs, so that consumers can make informed decisions in the future, even in the absence of adequate screening and labelling standards (see Part One online for more info.).

The beginnings

Thailand's academic interests in biotechnology can be traced back to the early 1980s with the establishment of the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (now BIOTEC) in 1983. But the first official GMO field trials, at least with a clear commercial agenda, didn't take place until 1994, and involved field trials of Calgene's Flavr Savr tomato (CGN-89564-2). 

The following year, the first field trials for Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton were conducted by American agrochemical company Monsanto (the same company who co-developed Agent Orange, the controversial herbicide that was used by the US military as a defoliant during the Vietnam War and which is believed to have caused the death and disability of millions).

By 1997, Thailand’s Agriculture Research Department opened up the door for open field testing on GMOs, with cotton, papaya and corn the main focus. In 1999, Monsanto obtained permission to import five kilogrammes of maize from the United States for transgenic experiments. That same year, GMO cotton contamination was discovered in Loei, suspected to derive from a research crop overseen by the Agriculture and Cooperatives Department.

International pressure

In 1999, a study commissioned by Monsanto and conducted by Kasetsart University, attempted to demonstrate the economic benefits of the controversial GMO Bt cotton. The same year, trade disputes arose between Thailand and Greece and The Netherlands, over Thai canned tuna which was packed in GMO-contaminated soya oil.

Subsequent disputes occurred with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia who rejected shipments of Thai canned tuna. Thailand's main supplier of soya was/is the US. 

Following such incidents, Thailand began to take a harder stance on the regulation of GMOs. In March 2000, the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives issued a ban on the import of 40 transgenic plants. Corn and soya were not banned, however.

Then, in 2001, the Thai cabinet issued a ban on GMO testing, while also issuing a labelling law that would require soya and corn products with their top three ingredients containing more than 5 per cent GMO content to be labelled.

Despite such measures, in 2004 Greenpeace exposed GMO contamination of papaya in Khon Kaen: Illegal GMO seeds were found in packages sold by the Department of Agriculture at Khon Kaen Horticulture Research Centre, one of the largest suppliers of papaya seeds in the country. Despite various high-profile court cases in proceeding years, no one was ultimately held accountable for the negligence that led to the contamination.

QSI International School Phuket

Floodgates reopened

In 2007, the new cabinet lifted the previous ban on GMO testing, issuing guidelines that required GMO testing to be done only on government land and in collaboration with a government body, and thus opening the door for future testing. That same year, a study by Biothai, a non-government organisation, conducted via Chulalongkorn University's food research and testing laboratory found GMO contamination of maize samples collected near Monsanto's maize farm in Phitsnaulok. Contamination continues.

In a subsequent study carried out by Biothai nationwide in 2008 and 2009, 17 more cases of GMO contamination were discovered. The contaminated crops found included corn and chili samples from Chiang Mai, as well as cases of GMO corn in Phitsanuloke, Ayuthaya, Saraburi and Phrae provinces; papaya in Kanchaburi and Nakhon Sawan, and cotton in Lopburi.

In 2012, a study by Chulalongkorn University's Department of Botany, found 29 samples of Hawaiian papaya in Kanchanaburi tainted with GMO in addition to nine samples of GMO cotton in Kanchanaburi and Sukhothai provinces. In July last year, Japan's Ministry of Public Health recalled unauthorised genetically modified papayas from Thailand, imported by a food distributor based in the city of Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture.

Also last year, the Department of International Commerce of the Commerce Ministry and Chulalongkorn Labratory of Plant Transgenic Technology performed a study on 96 papaya and 167 corn samples nationwide, finding 16 GMO papaya and 14 GMO corn samples.

In light of the lifting of GMO testing ban in 2007, Monsanto last year joined with a government University, Naresuan University in Phitsanulok to begin testing on NK603 GMO corn, tests which are now ongoing. On the topic of genetics and corn, it should also be noted that Thailand's largest agri-food company, Charoen Pokphand (CP), has long been a driver of the corporate seed monopoly agenda in Southeast Asia. CP is the principle foreign licensee of Monsanto's DeKalb Genetics, where it has developed its own hybrid seeds and distributed them for free to farmers throughout the region.

If there is anything that has become clear from the last few decades of GMO trial and error in Thailand, it is that contamination is uncontrollable. We haven’t even begun to address the implications of genetics and Intellectual Property laws on local agriculture, which are unfolding before our eyes.

Prosecuting farmers

In March this year, the Seed Association of Thailand – of which both Monsanto and CP are members – filed charges against a community seed producing group in Prao district in Chiang Mai after tests showed that as much as 49 per cent of the DNA of sampled seeds resembled CP's 888 variety of hybrid corn.

The ruling on the case, which is currently under review by the consumer protection police division, will set a genetic (GMOs and hybrids) IP precedence for not only Thailand but the entire region.

In the meantime, you as a consumer have the power to be informed and aware, and to make a conscious effort to not support an unaccountable and irresponsible corporate food monopoly – not only in the name of health, but also to promote the livelihood of small farmers and thus the security and integrity of our nation’s food supply for future generations.



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