Vindicated Thai GM activists face gaol all the same

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Saturday, April 30, 2005

Location map of Thailand

Two activists who helped identify a vagrant Genetically Modified (GM) crop of papaya, which was later confirmed and destroyed by Thai officials, now face prison over their actions, says Greenpeace.

"In July of 2004, [Journalist] Pat and [Ecology PhD] Jay took this story public when they acted as spokespersons for Greenpeace activists who sealed off GE papaya in experimental fields at the Khon Kaen research station — the source of GE papaya contamination in the region," says a statement from the environmental awareness organisation.

"They were charged with theft, trespassing and destruction of property."

"Instead of getting to the bottom of who precisely was responsible for the contamination, the very department that was responsible for the contamination decided to take legal action against Pat and Jay."

Crop discovery and destruction

Papaya fruit

In September the government was reported as having located at least nine GM plants on farms near the research facility, in Khon Kaen and Ubon Ratchathani. Entire farm crops were destroyed to prevent the GM variety from spreading further, including those at research stations.

"Ten years of research aimed at improving disease resistance in papayas was destroyed, along with the experimental crops," said Wilai Prasartsri to The Nation in Thailand when 1,000 suspected genetically modified papaya trees there were buried under 2 meters of soil. Prasartsri is the research station chief of Muang district, Khon Kaen.

Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Somsak Thepsuthin said at the time only GM crops were to be destroyed, out of 2,600 papaya crops sampled across Northeast Thailand. Papaya on the Khon Kaen farm were destroyed, and a control zone was set up within a 450metre radius of the GM contamination to prevent possible spread.

Director of state-funded non-government organisation, Bio-diversity and Community Rights Action Thailand [1], Withoon Lianchamroon pointed out that rather than carry out extensive testing to isolate GM crops, it would be cheaper to pay compensation to all 2,600 farmers and destroy all the papaya on their farms, because the cost of GMO testing – Bt1,600 (US$40) per sample – was prohibitive.

Two GM papaya strains are being developed in Thailand, according to Greenpeace: Khak Dam and Khak Nuan. The plants being grown in Thailand were genetically altered at Cornell University in the US, but details of the agreement were kept secret by the Thai government and Cornell, Greenpeace said. The group believed though, that a royalty fee was to be charged for commercial use of the plants showing the altered genetic code, which was designed to be resistant to ringspot virus.


Although the Network of Northeastern Alternative Agriculture has filed complaints of negligence against the Prime Minister and senior agriculture officials, calling on Khon Kaen police to launch a criminal investigation into how the crops had spread, Greenpeace claims that no charges have been laid against anyone except the two activists.

Mr Somsak has launched an internal investigation to determine how the GM papayas from the experimental fields leaked to taint local crops, while director-general of the Department of Agriculture (DOA), Chakan Saengraksawong, eager to begin further field trials, told The Nation, "We never sold the GM papaya seeds. If any official is found to have illegally sold the seeds he will surely face punishment."

Mr Withoon alleged at the time that a cover-up of the extent of dissemination of the GM variety had occurred. Mr Somsak said that the problem was limited to the Khon Kaen farms, whereas Withoon suspected that many more seedlings had 'escaped', with the thousands of Ubon Ratchathani villagers having been given seedlings by state experimental farms.

Environmentalists pointed to the apparent lack of effectiveness of the Khon Kaen farm's strong fences and round-the-clock security in preventing escape of the GM seedlings.

Status of GM in Thailand

Since 2001, Thailand has banned importation of GM organisms for commercial non-research purposes, until national regulations can be developed.

Exports to Europe were cancelled in the face of the discovery, affecting Thailand's US$1 million, 3,000 ton papaya export market. The internal market of papaya in Thailand is a hundred times as large.

According to Mr Withoon, most Thai are against GM. Bumrung Kayothabut of the Network of Northeastern Alternative Agriculture, last year said the government was in the grip of multinational companies trying to dominate Thai agriculture through the promotion of GM crops.

Senator Niran Phitakwatchara linked pro-GM moves by the government to the Thailand-United States Free Trade Agreement (FTA); in the midst of the papaya escapade, the Thai government was reviewing its policy on GM crops, and being lobbied by the US biotech monolith, Monsanto — who, with Cornell, holds patents on the world's only commercial GM papaya, SunUp, farmed in Hawaii.

Prime Minister Thaksin said on delaying of a decision on overturning the ban on GM crops, that the government needed more information. "People, including some scientists, still have no clear understanding of what GM crops really are," he told The Nation. He added that bio-safety legislation was needed as a first step, before examining whether or not to allow GM crops, and denied that the FTA was influencing Thai policy-making.


See also