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Angry Thai farmers call for ban on GM rice

Mae-Wan Ho reports on an extraordinary gathering of Thai farmers, activists, government officials, academics and rice research scientists with the objective of securing official protection for indigenous biodiversity knowledge and wisdom.


FARMERS from all over Thailand flocked to the day-long Rice Forum held in the Museum Hall for Culture and Agriculture in Kasetsart University near the outskirts of Bangkok on 15 August. There, they met with activists, government officials, academic scientists, students and indigenous peoples to hear speakers who included distinguished professors from the universities and Ministry of Agriculture, the leader of the Karen tribes as well as invited foreign guests.  This was in preparation for the long march to take place in September, in protest against the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to Thailand. Monsanto from next door sent their representative to listen in.

Professor Rapee Sakrik, twice Rector of the University and orchid breeder, opened the morning session with an elegant reminder of the importance of orchids to Thai culture in developing an inner appreciation of the finer things in life. It is good intentions from the heart that would really change people’s perceptions and actions, he said.

Dr Ampon Kittiampon, Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperation, regrets that modern knowledge does not include traditional wisdom, and that the emphasis on cost-effectiveness has sidelined societal values. The recent economic crisis presented an opportunity to reassess the balance between cultural conservation and external demands. ‘Rice is what supports our society,’ he said. ‘Export is important but cannot be the only focus.’ External influence and intellectual property rights both undermine traditional knowledge. Furthermore, if farmers have to buy seeds, it would compromise food security.

Joni, leader of the Karen, told his audience that ‘rice is life for the Karen’ and that losing the seed is to lose life itself. Their whole culture revolves around rice. The spirit of rice rises to heaven every year and a rice ceremony takes place before planting. The Karen used to plant 100 varieties, of which only five are now left. He blamed the academics and the authorities for not understanding swidden (shifting) agriculture, which works on a four-year cycle. Planting rice in the same place for four years led to the loss of both the rice crops and the forest.

Varieties of rice

Prof. Prapas, rice breeder from the Ministry of Agriculture, and Day-ene Siripatra from the Khoaw Kwan (or Rice Spirit) Foundation gave differing versions of the history of rice breeding in Thailand. In the olden days, Prof. Prapas told us, there were four ministries, one of which was the ministry for rice affairs. The Department of Rice, which became the Rice Research Institute, used to research social and cultural aspects of rice and not just genetic modification. During the reign of King Rama V, Thailand was exporting rice, but the price was very low. So the King organised a competition on rice varieties. This led to many varieties being developed, and for years, the top 10 prizes in the Canadian rice competition went to Thailand. Now, only Jasmine rice is left.  In those days (45-50 years ago) the main focus of farmers was to plant for their own use. Now the focus is on export and high yields. Prof. Prapas suggested that genetic engineering may be used on traditional varieties to create high yields and good taste, or to resist pests.

Day-ene Siripatra told his audience that the practice of rice planting did not change until the British forced Thailand to open her market. After that, Thailand developed irrigation systems and rice research stations and organised rice competitions. The Rice Research Institute was established to get varieties that were good for export (those that won prizes in Canada). Of the 10 that won prizes, nine were no longer used, but kept in the seed bank. After World War II, Thailand had a contract with the US. Dr Love, a rice specialist from the US, came to Thailand to train government officials to collect rice varieties. A total of 120,000 varieties were collected, which Dr Love took to the US. (So, biopiracy is nothing new!) The present-day Jasmine rice was also developed by the farmers themselves.

Green Revolution

In the 1960s, the Green Revolution was introduced to Thailand by the World Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation, and caused drastic loss of traditional varieties through its emphasis on high yields with high inputs. Farmers were told to exchange their traditional varieties for the new ones, which turned out to be very susceptible to disease. Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, had come to Thailand two weeks earlier to promote GMOs. From past experience, Day-ene is not at all convinced GMOs are the way ahead.

Farmer after farmer made passionate and at times angry contributions from the floor. ‘Jasmine rice is losing its fragrance because the Ministry of Agriculture is promoting new varieties. The new varieties cross with the old and make them lose their fragrance. Farmers are in debt because merchants reduce the price due to the loss of fragrance.’

‘We must revive traditional varieties and the Government must raise the price of traditional varieties.’ ‘Lots of fragrant rice used to be planted but the Government developed varieties for export and emphasised yield, so farmers stopped planting fragrant rice varieties.’

‘To conserve rice varieties, the Government must buy different varieties.’

Farmers confirmed that the use of pesticides and fertilisers resulted in many diseases, while traditional varieties never gave so many problems. They also pointed out that the benefit of rice planting is that it provided food and feed for animals as well as a surplus for selling on the market. ‘Without rice planting, we become poorer.’ They called for more integrated farming.

In concluding the session, Joni deplored the fact that people are losing their natural cooperative tendencies on account of the money culture. Day-ene called for a change of paradigm instead of just trying to patch the old one up. The holistic way is to integrate agriculture with culture: rice as life and not rice as commodity.

The first session in the afternoon dealt with the technical aspects of GM rice, which confirmed what had already been said in the morning. I gave an overview of the state of resistance to GM crops all over the world, and explained what genetic engineering is and how it threatens not just food security but also our most deeply held social values. The resistance to GM crops is a struggle to reclaim the good life for all in every sense.

Devlin Kuyek from the Barcelona-based NGO, GRAIN <www.grain.org>, gave a very useful review of the transgenic rice engineered to resist bacterial blast - BB rice for short - of which the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is to hold field trials in South-East Asia, starting in the Philippines. The Philippines’ Biosafety Guidelines actually state that, ‘Genetic manipulation of organisms should be allowed only if the ultimate objective is for the welfare of humanity and the natural environment and only if it has been clearly stated that there are no existing or foreseeable alternative approaches to serving the welfare of humanity and the environment.’ It turns out that only Green Revolution varieties are susceptible to bacterial blight and not the local varieties. The IRRI has in fact caused bacterial blight and is now proposing to use the GM rice to solve the problem. But past experience has shown that this strategy will not work, as the bacterial blight will merely mutate into a new form.

Myth of ‘golden rice’

Lene Santos, also from GRAIN, exploded the myth of the ‘golden rice’ - engineered to produce pro-vitamin A in the polished grain - that is supposed to cure widespread vitamin A deficiency in the Third World. She pointed out that the poor and malnourished are actually deficient in multiple vitamins and nutrients, and that the problem cannot be addressed by pro-vitamin A alone. There are already some 70 patents on the golden rice, owned by 32 companies. The modified rice variety is a temperate rice unsuitable for growing in the tropics. (See also ISIS Sustainable Audit #1, ‘The Golden Rice, an Exercise in How Not to Do Science’, www.i-sis.org.)

The Monsanto representative finally spoke up and said that the company is only trying to improve the quality of life for people in the Third World, and villagers can choose not to use GM crops. China and Singapore, she said, are promoting and embracing the technology enthusiastically just so they won’t be dominated by foreign countries.

According to Devlin, a Chinese contact told him that they experienced the same problems with Monsanto’s GM cotton as in the US, with cotton balls dropping off when the crop was sprayed with Roundup. But the farmers were under contract to Monsanto to say nothing!

Dangerous

Monsanto was rebutted by a professor from Prince of Songkla University who dwelt on the importance of protecting Thailand as a centre of rice biodiversity, and who said that it would be very dangerous to release rice GMOs. (Thailand already has a huge variety of rice, all differing in both fragrance and colour - shades of yellow, red and black - rich in all kinds of vitamins and minerals.) Another forceful speaker from the floor said, ‘Monsanto, don’t try to push us! Academics and government officials ought to try to reach a clear understanding on how to protect the natural world. Instead Thailand is being dominated by a group of corporate scientists reaping benefits from the developing to the developed world. Small farmers are being forced into contractual arrangements, or bribery, and have no choice. The Philippines is taking an aggressive stand before the GM crops come in.’

The last session was on intellectual property rights and the speakers were Professor Chakkrit , an academic from the Department of Law, and Mr. Bantoong of the Biodiversity Institute. Thailand already has comprehensive draft legislations to protect her genetic resources, the forests and especially her rich tradition of herbal medicines, which is being recovered for use in public health, in an effort to substitute for the high costs of imported medicine and to promote the exchange of knowledge and resources in the form of medical herbs, health foods and other healthcare items. Western scientific knowledge is combined with indigenous scientific knowledge, and government agencies, NGOs and academics are all involved in the important task of recovering traditional medicines. Provisions are being made to register inventions under the ownership of communities, NGOs, traditional healers, monks and private individuals. This model should be taken seriously by countries all over the world, as it will do much to counteract corporate biopiracy as well as unsustainable corporate monopoly on food and health.

A spokesperson from the Agricultural Research Department said, ‘Our biodiversity is our national treasure. The problem is how to protect our treasure, which includes tropical fruits and microorganisms.’ He stressed the need to conserve living organisms in nature and not only in gene banks. In the Rice Research Institute in Central Thailand, 30,000 varieties of rice have already been collected, and it is not at all clear that they can keep. ‘As for GMOs, we don’t allow the use of GMOs commercially, only for research.’

This brought forth a torrent of condemnation from the farmers. ‘The Government has led us in the wrong direction. Up to now we did not know anything about GMOs, but thanks to this seminar, things have changed. Research institutes have concentrated on creating varieties that are sensitive to fertilisers and dependent on pesticides, and now GMOs are much worse. We are losing our life!’

‘The lies we have been told! The patents that have been obtained based on modifying our varieties. And adding vitamin A to our varieties for higher profit.’

‘Anyone pushing GMOs is wicked. We have to stop them. We cannot allow GMOs in Thailand.’

‘We have to collect the names of villagers in Thailand who do not want GMOs and tell the Department of Agriculture and Development to stop.’

‘Stop explaining the benefits of GMOs!’

‘Patenting of rice is robbing us of our livelihood.’

‘We still have lots of varieties but we may lose them because of Government policies. The Government does not care about the traditional way of life in the highlands. The Government says people don’t have knowledge and destroy natural resources under swidden agriculture, and arrest them. It is the Government that is destroying our rice varieties, first through the Green Revolution, and now it is trying to fix it with GMOs.’

In a television debate two days later, Dr Suthep Limtongkul, Director of the Rice Research Institute, announced that they have put all GM rice in the gene bank, and will not carry out any more research on them. But still, farmers want the GM rice destroyed.    

Dr Mae-Wan Ho, of the Institute of Science in Society, is a Reader in Biology at the Open University, UK, and a Fellow of the US National Genetics Foundation.

 


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