State should lead the fight against GM food

GM contamination was first reported in Thailand in 1999 after cotton samples from field researchconducted by BIOTHAI and the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) were found to be contaminated with Bt cotton – a genetically engineered cotton variety produced by Monsanto. In 2004, tests made by Greenpeace revealed that a local farmer’s plantation in Khon Kaen province was contaminated by GM papaya. That farmer was one of 2,600 who had bought papaya seedlings from the Department ofAgriculture’s research station where field trials of GM papaya were being conducted. At first, the government denied that GM crops were being grown in Thailand, but the contamination was so widespread that it reached another province, Ubol Ratchatani, where at least 90 farms had also received papaya seedlings. Most recently, in 2007, Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Science and BIOTHAI found GM contamination in maize, soya and cotton samples that they tested from provinces all over the country.

The Thais believe that a two-pronged approach is necessary to address this situation. On the one hand, pressure should be put on the government to implement policies that protect the country from GM contamination. The Thai Working Group Against GMOs, which BIOTHAI coordinates, has organised numerous activities to keep the national moratorium on GMOs in place. They have sent petition letters, organised demonstrations in front of government offices, and pushed for a dialogue with top officials, including the deputy Prime Minister and Secretaries of Health and Agriculture. These efforts had an impact : on 25 December 2007, the Thai government announced its rules on GMOs which include, among other things, a mandatory public hearing prior to field testing, and a recommendation that approval from the local people in the field test area, as well as from independent NGOs and the academic community, should be obtained. From the perspective of BIOTHAI – which is currently running a cam  paign to develop a People’s Biosafety Law – this was an important victory.

On the other hand, the Thais are working to increase local capacity to develop systems to detect contamination and deal with its impacts. The Khao Kwan Foundation (KKF), one of the founding organisations of AAN, has been mobilising farmers’ knowledge to identify contaminated seeds and to control or eliminate them. The KKF runs trainings and workshops on seed breeding and selection, which indirectly deal with contamination.

KKF believes that farmers are able to notice anything abnormal in their crops, because of their in-depth knowledge of seeds and their skill in selection. Whether it is the colour, the hardness or the smell, every variety has peculiarities that farmers who have been working on seeds know in detail. So any alterations will be easily detected, even before the plant starts to flower.

Daycha Siripatra, founder of KKF, says: “This is the principle of local adaptability. We’ve made our seeds recognise their environment and use that environment to express their potential. An alien seed, like a GMO, will not automatically thrive in our area and, even if it grows, farmers will be able to notice it right away, just from its appearance.”