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Thai PM gives nod to biotech crops

(Sunday, Aug. 22, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- AFP, 08/21/04: BANGKOK - Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said he would allow an open-field trial of genetically modified food in what would be a key step towards commercial use of GM crops in the kingdom.

The relaxation of Thailand's existing regulations on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) still requires cabinet approval, but Thaksin said broader experimentation with and use of the strains would be sanctioned under a new biosafety law to be tabled next year.

"We have the capacity to develop genetically modified crops and if we do not embark on it now we may miss our opportunity," Thaksin said during his weekly radio address, a day after presiding over a meeting on the matter.

"But we must ... use compulsory clear labeling."

Thailand's cabinet in 2001 banned GMO field trials. Current law forbids the public sale of GMO seeds and requires products containing more than five percent of a genetically modified ingredient to be labelled as such.

Thaksin said he felt buoyed by progress in Europe where the EU ended its ban on GMO products, and stressed that Thailand would be successful if it could juggle both GMO and conventional crop markets.

Sakarindr Bhumiratana, a scientist with Thailand's National Center of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, said the kingdom was currently testing GMO strains of papaya, chili and orchids for future commercial use.

"The scientists must experiment at the farm level -- the last stage -- in order to assess the impact and ensure that GMO crops can be grown on a commercial scale," he said in an interview on Thai radio.

Last month environmental group Greenpeace, a major opponent of genetically modified foods, accused the Thai government of illegally selling seeds from genetically modified papaya fruit after raiding a state-owned farm.

Other environmental groups slammed Thaksin's announcement as a "mammoth mistake" that could throw Thailand's huge agriculture industry in to turmoil.

"The policy is putting Thai people at risk," Witoon Lianchamroon, the director of the BioThai Network, said in the Nation newspaper, adding that a countrywide upswell of opposition was likely.

"Thaksin has doubled back on his big promise to farmers and environmental groups" to maintain a ban on commercial use of GMOs, he said.

Other opponents quoted by the English-language daily said Thailand had been heavily pressured by American corporate giants like Monsanto, which is pushing to test genetically modified corn strains.

They also said the US government, which launched negotiations on a free trade agreement with Thailand this year, has insisted as part of the talks that Thailand grant intellectual property protection for genetically modified crops.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (news - web sites), biotechnology could help developing-world farmers feed another two billion people in 30 years, breeding drought-resistant crops as well as staples such as rice and cassava that require less water.

In May a fresh row over genetically modified food erupted in Europe after the European Commission (news - web sites) declared the EU would allow its first imports of a bio-engineered crop in over five years.

The decision outraged Europe's green lobby, which accused the commission of flouting public opinion and the so-called precautionary principle, by which a GM product must be proven safe before it goes on sale.