Thailand needs biological safety bill to manage biotech: Scientist

PHOTO: Reuters

STANDING in the frontline of the battle to correct "misconceptions" about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), scientist Jessada Denduangboripant says GMOs cannot be "Frankenstein" creations, as many NGOs have claimed. They were an important and useful technology, he said, that could help farmers improve agricultural productivity.

"Our country needs the Biological Safety Bill as a legal tool to control all living organisms that we use in all sectors of agriculture and industry. It is important that we have this tool to manage biotechnology, or else we will be held back as the rest of the world progresses," according to Jessada, a well-known scientist from Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Science.

He said opponents of the controversial bill, which recently received Cabinet approval, mistakenly believe it will allow transnational biotechnology companies to control the seed market in Thailand.

He said the bill was drafted for everyone and farmers will have the right to choose what type of crop they want to grow.

"Many people are worried that if the bill takes effect, the farmers will not be able to collect seeds for the next season, which is inaccurate. Thailand does not have this kind of law," he said.

"People still have a misunderstanding about GMOs and this bill, in contrast, will open a large opportunity for our country to develop biotechnology of our own."

Amid widespread concerns that the bill will be the first step to GMO liberalisation, Jessada said the bill would include strict rules to select safe GMOs before they can be used in an open environment and it did not mean that bill would allow GMOs to be used without testing.

"Before any GM plants are put on the safe list, they have to pass prudent tests both in laboratories and in greenhouses until they prove |that they are not harmful.

"This part of the bill was written according to the international standards of precautionary approach," he said.

He also clarified concerns that GMOs would "escape" and contaminate the ecosystem if they are used in an open environment by revealing that the majority of GM cash crops cannot survive in the wild without human care.

"Most of our cash crops, such as yellow bean, cotton or corn, are alien to the ecosystem in Thailand. They would die if no one feeds them with fertiliser or sprays them with pesticide.

"Therefore, fears of GMO contamination are quite alarmist."

The academic also said many GM plants could only spread pollen in a limited area.

Corn, for example, could spread pollen to a range of only 100 metres, but it only successfully breeds in a range of just five metres, because the "breeding" success rate is based on the density of pollen in the area.

So, GM farming could not contaminate other farms, he said, and they could not mix with organic crops if organic farmers prepare their farms and keep a proper distance from GM farms.

"I believe that if we don't have |this bill, we will have no legitimate body to control GMO technology," he said.