Wed, May 18, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Thailand embroiled in controversy over GM crops

While activists question the hidden dangers of genetically engineered food, researchers say environmentalists are hampering safety trials

By Michael Mathes  /  AFP , KHON KAEN, THAILAND

Here in Thailand's bread basket, behind a barbed wire fence with a padlocked gate in a government-run research center, lies the most controversial plot of cropland in the kingdom.

The half-hectare area in northeastern Thailand is fallow. The center's authorities argue they were nurturing hope for thousands of papaya farmers, but activists saw a dangerous and failed experiment, and last year took action that led to the plot's plants being yanked out by their roots.

The trees in question were genetically modified (GM) papaya, and for some they represented the future of Thai agriculture.

Thailand is under pressure to resume field trials of genetically altered crops, sometimes known as GMOs, as it seeks to maintain its role as the region's agricultural power.

Environmental watchdogs such as Greenpeace, as well as consumer and rights groups, are vehemently opposed, fearing unknown environmental and health risks.

Thailand has conducted greenhouse and station field trials of modified papaya since the late 1990s. Last year Greenpeace announced it had uncovered the illegal spread of the papaya seeds to Thai farms, some of them hundreds of kilometers from Khon Kaen.

It believes Thailand's department of agriculture was complicit in the contamination.

The government, caught in a media glare, scrapped the station field trials. But it also quietly took two Greenpeace activists to court on charges of trespassing, theft and destruction of property after a media stunt at the Khon Kaen research center. They face five years in prison.

"This is the opening of the GMO door in Thailand," defendant Patwajee Srisuwan told reporters at the Khon Kaen court. "They are trying to stop us from exposing more information about what they're doing with GMO papaya, because the department has tried to push for its commercialization."

Thailand's Cabinet four years ago banned GMO farm field trials, but debate rages over the research's future.

GMO crops -- developed to produce higher yields, or to be resistant to viruses or pesticides -- are booming worldwide, reaching 81 million hectares last year, a 20 percent year-on-year growth, according to the pro-GMO group ISAAA.

Most GM crops are grown in the US, but 5 percent are now grown in China other developing countries are making the switch.

The crops consist mainly of soybeans, but include corn, tomatoes, cotton and papaya.

US multinational Monsanto, which owns several patents for genetically modified organisms and has funded research in Thailand, insists biotech crops are safe, having undergone "more extensive testing than any other plants in the history of agriculture."

Thai activists are not swayed.

"The government must not put Thai consumers at risk and must ensure GMOs do not enter the food chain," says Sairung Thongploon, head of the Confederation of Consumer Organizations of Thailand.

Amnesty International Thailand says the Greenpeace-GMO scandal has undermined confidence in the Thai government, and has called for the immediate dismissal of the court case.

Activists say not enough research is being done.

Such criticism is unfair, says Vilai Prasartsee, director of the Khon Kaen research center.

The papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) caused huge losses in 1994 to one of Thailand's key crops, and still wreaks havoc.

"We have been trying to help papaya farmers control PRSV, but we cannot control it. The severity is increasing every year," she told reporters.

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