Cablegate: Biotech Cropping Up Again in Thailand

Published: Tue 21 Aug 2007 09:38 AM
DE RUEHBK #4513/01 2330938
R 210938Z AUG 07
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REF: 05 Bangkok 7336
1. Summary. The Thai Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives (MOAC)
is building Cabinet support for the lifting of a six-year long
moratorium on biotech crop field trials. Field trials were halted
in 2001 when public and political opinion called for more stringent
regulations for biotech crops due to heightened fears of health and
environmental impacts. A Cabinet vote to resume field trials could
come as early as next week. Recent efforts by FAS Bangkok and
pro-biotech organizations in Thailand have helped increase public
awareness of the advantages of biotech crops and dispel myths.
During this most recent effort, public opposition has been lighter
than expected. End Summary.
2. According to Dr. Suthat Sriwatanapongse of the Biotechnology
Alliance Association (a non-government organization dedicated to the
promotion of biotechnology in Thailand), the Minister of Agriculture
and Cooperatives, the Minister of Science and Technology, the
Minister of Public Health and the Minister of Natural Resources and
Environment have been working to build support among other members
of the Cabinet to lift the moratorium on open field trials of
biotech crops. Dr. Suthat and others connected to the biotech
industry in Thailand are optimistic that the Cabinet will vote on
the Ministry's proposal as early as next week.
Resistance to Biotech Crops
3. Numerous groups have raised concerns over development of biotech
food in Thailand. Biothai, a local NGO, has expressed fears biotech
crops will migrate from research fields to ordinary fields and
"contaminate" traditional crops. Biothai is opposed to the lifting
of the moratorium without a legal structure holding biotech firms
accountable for damage to non-biotech farmers and the environment.
Another concern is that the planting of biotech crops will taint the
image of Thailand's agricultural sector and affect its substantial
agricultural exports, particularly to Europe and Japan.
4. On August 16, the Bangkok Post reported that Witoon
Lienchamroon, director of Biothai, threatened the Thai government
with legal action if it failed to enact a new National Bio-Safety
Law before allowing open field trials of biotech crops. This is the
first public NGO response to the recent push for the lifting of the
Biotech Developments in Thailand
5. Agriculture contributes approximately 10 percent to Thailand's
GDP. Thailand is a world leader in the production of rice, cassava,
canned tuna and canned pineapple. Currently, 49 percent of the labor
force is engaged in some form of agriculture. The Royal Thai
Government (RTG) has traditionally supported the belief that
Thailand will need to embrace biotechnology in order to maintain a
competitive advantage in agricultural production in the region.
6. In 1983, the RTG established the National Center for Genetic
Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC) under the Ministry of Science
and Energy. In 1991, BIOTEC was placed under the newly established
National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA). Since
then, BIOTEC has facilitated the drafting of biosafety regulatory
schemes and the National Policy on Biotechnology and its Strategy
for Implementation 2004-2009. The establishment of BIOTEC and its
continued support is indicative of the RTG's commitment to
7. Since the establishment of BIOTEC, there have been several
advancements in the development of biotech crops in Thailand. Thai
researchers initiated field trials of biotech tomato, papaya, cotton
and chili peppers starting in 1994. There were hopes of researching
and developing such high value crops as rice, sugar cane and rubber.
However, field trials were halted in 2001 after increased pressure
from NGOs and activist groups. Greenpeace and BioThai were the most
vocal and their effective use of the Thai media resulted in a
negative public perception of biotechnology. The Cabinet imposed a
moratorium on biotech field trials, which was reaffirmed by the
Cabinet under Prime Minister Thaksin in 2004. In 2001, the MOAC
(now under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Resources and
Environment), tasked the National Drafting Committee (NDC) with
drafting a National Biotech-safety Law.
8. The public's concern about biotechnology resurfaced in 2004,
when several biotech papaya plants were found in a local farmer's
field in Khon Kaen Province. Greenpeace then facilitated the
destruction of all the biotech plants at the MOAC extension office
in Khon Kaen, further generating negative publicity for biotech
USG Takes on Papaya
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9. Embassy Bangkok has concentrated its efforts on improving the
image of biotech foods by focusing on one crop, papaya, and the
papaya ring spot virus (PRSV) that has crippled Thai production.
PRSV destroys the leaves of papaya trees and leads to a decrease in
fruit size and yield. The virus is spread through the movement of
insects from tree to tree and there is no effective treatment or
cure for the virus other than the destruction of the infected trees.
The first outbreak of PRSV in Thailand was in 1975, and by 2003 the
disease had spread throughout the country. Approximately 80 percent
of planted areas have been infected, and yields have declined fifty
10. During the week of July 16, FAS/Bangkok, in cooperation with
the State Department and the Biotechnology Alliance Association,
conducted a series of seminars titled, "Crisis and Solution: The
Problem of Papaya Ring Spot Virus in Papaya Exporting and
Productions" in Khon Kaen, Nakhonpathom, and Bangkok. The seminars
increased awareness and support for biotechnology among Thai
stakeholders by discussing global commercialization of biotech crops
and Thailand's problems with the papaya ring spot virus. More than
200 participants attended the three seminars, including private and
commercial papaya producers, media reporters, consumers, papaya
processors, and academics.
11. As part of the seminars, FAS/Bangkok invited a Hawaiian biotech
papaya producer, Ken Kamiya, to speak to Thai producers
pragmatically about the experience of biotech papaya in Hawaii and
the risks of not adopting biotech, or "rainbow," papaya when faced
with PRSV. According to Kamiya, in 1998 PRSV nearly destroyed the
Hawaiian papaya industry. The introduction of biotech papaya to
Hawaii allowed growers to eliminate PRSV from their fields.
Currently, about 95 percent of papaya production in Hawaii is
crossed with biotech papaya.
12. Despite progress towards commercialization of biotech products
in Thailand, biotech crops lack broad support and most of the public
remains unaware of the benefits that biotech crops could have for
Thai farmers. Traditionally, Greenpeace and other environmental
NGOs have organized awareness activities and publicity stunts to
sway public opinion against allowing biotech research and
development. During the most recent public diplomacy activity by
BIOTEC, BAA, FAS and Embassy Bangkok, opposition groups were not
present. The unexpectedly light public opposition to date could
ease the way for Cabinet approval. End Comment.
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