A non-elected government should not be allowing the spread of genetically modified organisms
The row over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has waxed and waned in Thailand since the first pilot plantation two decades ago, but it’s back on the front burner again now as legislators mull a law to regulate the type of organisms used in agriculture.
The Cabinet has endorsed the Biological Safety Bill and placed it before the military-installed legislature. The debate comes down to whether the law will bring about agricultural prosperity or ruin much of our food supply.
The GMO bill responds to an acknowledged need for a legal means of managing the biotechnology that is essential if Thailand is to remain competitive in the global export market. But what might appear at first to be a healthy step for all concerned has a devil in the details, in that it might open the way for the widespread use of GMOs.
The bill ascribes no legal responsibility to the manufacturers and distributors of GMO seeds to cover damages to farms or the environment. Approved GMO farms would need neither an Environmental Impact Assessment nor a Health Impact Assessment.
Opponents of the bill, seeing it as de facto acceptance of GMOs, have been forceful in their objections. They point out that it will enable research plantations on this still-contentious innovation in agriculture. Petitions opposing the bill are circulating online and farmers, consumer groups and non-governmental organisations are raising the alarm.
We have already witnessed Japan’s rejection of papaya shipments from Thailand because the fruit was “contaminated” by GMOs. Thai farmers naturally fear that their own crops might go unsold if GMO use spreads with the government’s blessing. The benefits of using GMOs, like increased yields and cheaper animal feed, amount to little if customers shun the produce when it arrives on shelves. Wider use of GMOs would also affect organic farmers – pioneers in a potentially lucrative export market – due to the possibility of airborne spores infecting their carefully nurtured crops.
In India, where the cotton industry is now dominated by Monsanto’s genetically engineered Bt seeds (Bacillus thuringiensis), farmers are showing allergic symptoms and many animals have died. The GMO issue has even been linked – though without proof as yet – to a rise in suicides among Indian farmers, reportedly because they faced bankruptcy when their yield failed to match their investment.
The predominant concern in Thailand is that Monsanto and other corporate modifiers of patented crop seeds will be able to extend their reach and ultimately wipe out the market for locally cultivated seeds, leaving farmers with no choice at planting time. The country’s biodiversity would be under threat as local agriculture bows to the economy of scale and the government abdicates control over our food “sovereignty” to foreigners. Any hope of Thailand developing a “sufficiency economy” would vanish as capitalist interests dictate agricultural policy.
There remain too many doubts about GMOs – as documented by the World Health Organisation and other important agencies – for this matter to be resolved anytime soon. For Thailand to sanction the use of modified seeds amid such uncertainties, given the inherent corruption and incompetence within the bureaucracy, only invites trouble.
Acceptance or rejection of GMO farming is a decision that demands full public participation, and since Thailand is under dictatorial rather than democratic rule, this is hardly the time for a military-installed government to be enacting laws of such consequence. Agriculture is Thailand’s economic backbone. Everyone’s health is at stake.