The Cabinet’s Board of Science and Technology recently announced its intention to draw up a set of rules governing the regulation of genetic modification (GM) technologies in order to expand existing restrictions and encourage domestic research, development and production of GM crops.
After this news was announced, I-Mei Foods general manager Kao Chih-ming (高志明) publicly expressed his reservations, saying that such a move is “sure to turn Taiwan into the primary testing ground for major global GM manufacturers.” This stirred up quite a debate on Kao’s Facebook page, the general consensus being that the Cabinet’s policy was ill-conceived.
A spokesperson for the board said the aim was more to regulate GM research and development, not to promote it as such, and the Council of Agriculture (COA) spoke of the importance of maintaining openness and transparency concerning the development of agricultural GM products, and of exercising caution regarding which products are developed. Nevertheless, these official announcements were not enough to completely dispel Kao’s suspicions.
The official position is that the drafting of the new regulations was less concerned with the planting of genetically modified organisms (GMO) than it was R&D in the field. A lot of investment went into the early development of GMO in Taiwan, although there was little to show for it, and the COA is already aware of the problems. The precious little scientific research now being undertaken on cultivating GM crops notwithstanding, the focus has mostly shifted to risk management. Surely, if the Cabinet wants to encourage research and development into GMO, it does not expect the council to start afresh.
Hawaii is one of the global centers of GMO development, and it is known for its GM papayas. Over the past few years, major GMO producers have been setting up their own labs around the archipelago. This has major repercussions because of the wide expanses of land available for GM crops on the US mainland. The planting of herbicide-tolerant GM crops, and the consequent wide usage of herbicides, has led to the emergence of super-weeds resistant to agricultural chemicals.
Genetically modified pesticides have also resulted in the creation of “super insects” which have become resistant to pesticides. This has meant that the GM companies are having to continuously cultivate multiple pesticides and genetically engineer multiple hybrid toxic proteins. This development is a matter of some concern for many Hawaiians who are worried that genetic engineering could negatively impact human health and the environment. For this reason they are actively seeking to legislate against the planting of GM crops, creating a major headache for GMO producers.
Are these same producers planning to relocate to Taiwan? Taiwan is similar to Hawaii in that crops can be grown for three seasons of the year, and with the proper facilities available, it is a good place for GMO labs to be set up. Information released by WikiLeaks in 2010 reveals that the American Institute in Taiwan has been lobbying for Taiwan to become a springboard for GM technologies in Asia.
It is reasonable to assume that the government’s decision to develop the facilities for GMO research and development has something to do with attracting major GM companies. If this is the case, and Kao’s suspicions are proven to be well-founded, would the public find this acceptable? One can only hope that the Cabinet offers a public guarantee that it does not plan to allow foreign institutions to make GMO tests in Taiwan.
Warren Kuo is a professor at National Taiwan University’s Department of Agronomy.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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