Thai cabinet overturns GMO approval

BANGKOK, Thailand, September 1, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- Trirat Puttajanyawong, Reuters, 08/31/04: Thailand's cabinet decided on Tuesday to keep a three-year ban on planting crops using genetically modified organisms (GMO), overturning a decision by a panel chaired by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Instead, it decided to set up a panel to hear the arguments for and against GMO crops from state agencies and biotech lecturers at all Thai universities, Science Minister Korn Dabbaransi told reporters.

"We will have academics from all universities to hear their view on three options -- 1) to promote GMOs freely in Thailand, 2) to allow the co-existence of GM and non-GM crops, or 3) to ban GMOs completely," Korn said after the weekly cabinet meeting.

Tuesday's decision reversed one made by Thaksin's committee only little more than a week ago to allow open-field trials alongside non-GMO plants.

The following day, Thaksin used part of his weekly radio address to laud Thailand as a country technologically capable of developing GMOs.

"If we don't start now, we will miss this scientific train and lose out in the world," he said.

The debate on biotech grains has intensified worldwide, with advocates saying they could lead to a more secure future for food, while opponents say they could produce new toxins and allergens, affecting the health of consumers.

Following Thaksin's decision, anti-GMO activists, including Greenpeace and organic food growers, went out on the streets to urge the government to reverse its decision, fearing the country's organic food export industry would be hit hard.

Anti-GMO advocates said by adopting open field trials, Thailand was heading towards promoting GMOs freely as the government had no measures to prevent GM crops from contaminating non-GMO crops.

Korn said the government would not change its GMO policy until a law on biotechnology had been passed.

Planting of GM crops is now done in government laboratories for papayas, chillies and eggplants, while imports of genetically modified soybeans and maize for animal feedstock and other commercial uses are legal, officials said.

A consumer group reacted warily to the cabinet decision and urged the government to allow anti-GMO activists to take part in the drafting process of a new law on biotechnology.

"We hope this government didn't keep the ban because they were afraid of losing their popularity ahead of the general election," said Sairung Thongplon of the Confederation of Consumers' Organisations.

"We hope it will not lift the ban after the elections" due by the end of March.

(Additional reporting by Sasithorn Simaporn)