Thailand is in a policy dilemma over GM technology. It has launched an ambitious plan to export organic food but is spending hundreds of millions of Baht on a biotechnology park.
Living in the poorest part of Thailand, the Northeastern region, Somkhuan Sriwongchotikul and Thongmuan Lokawee have many things in common – both are women farmers of roughly the same age (52 and 53) who work in the province of Khon Kaen.
When it comes to Genetically Modified (GM) organisms, however, they just cannot seem to agree. The subject they are discussing is GM papaya fruit. While Somkhuan wholly supports GM papaya, Thongmuan, a member of a regional organic farmers' network, completely rejects any kind of GM crop. Somkhuan used to enthusiastically grow GM papaya before the authorities destroyed her crop last August after fears over its safety, sparked by protests by anti-GM campaigners.
"Nothing happened when we ate it. So, it should be safe," Somkhuan says.
"It is not natural, could harm our health and environment and it also belongs to someone who, in the end, will make us pay for using these artificial breeds," Thongmuan argues. The two women mirror opinions held across Thai society on what is seen by many as a complex issue.
Somkhuan was first introduced to GM crops on a visit to a research centre where she spotted some information on GM papaya pinned on a public information board. To her, GM papaya is the "magic papaya breed" with a yield more than ten times that of traditional crops.
She knows little else about GM – if officials at the centre said it was good, she says, it was good enough for her. Thongmuan learnt about GM crops from her organic farmers' network, and her belief in non-GM crops has been strengthened by a controversy over GM papaya in Thailand
The row began on July 27 last year when activists from Greenpeace, an environmental campaigning group, broke into a research centre saying they wanted to collect samples of GM papaya for contamination testing.
They also tested papaya from nearby farms and claimed that the GM papaya from the research centre had spread – although the centre was only allowed to conduct tests in laboratories and not fields.
Initially, the accusation was strongly denied by officials at the research centre and the Ministry of Agriculture. However, once the contamination was shown to have spread as far as 70 km from the centre, the government finally admitted its mistake, and commissioned studies into all aspects of biotechnology, ordering all GM and affected papaya trees destroyed.
Despite the controversy, the fact remains that Somkhuan and Thongmuan are in a minority – most people in their communities have not even heard of the term 'GM'.
"Life on the farm does not allow you to read newspapers or get information from the world outside," says farmer Anan Somjak, 47, from the Northern province of Chiang Mai. "There are always so many more important things to do. I personally would not know about the GM debate if I had not joined the organic farmers' network."
This limited access to information seems to affect not only farmers but also the middle class in Bangkok and other cities.
"The little information that was sent to the public came mostly from the authorities, and they spoke only about benefits of GM technology," says Bangkok resident Thamrong Saengsuriyachan, an engineer. "Most discussions are limited among certain groups," such as scientists, academics, activists and farmers' organisations.
Thai scientists are in the same boat. Although they have easy access to information on the scientific aspects of GM they know very little about the political, legal and policy angles, said scientist Hataichanok Niamsap.
Newspapers and television are the two major media disseminating information and raising debate on GM issues. But there are few in-depth or well-rounded discussions on television. Apart from the well-known problem of limited airtime, not many producers are interested in broadcasting programmes on a technically complex issue such as GMOs. There is also the risk that such topics may not please commercial sponsors.
Newspapers have their own limitations: even though the Thai press is considered to be free, especially when compared to others in Southeast Asia, GM has to jostle for space with politics and business.
"There is very little information reaching the public today. However, the situation is getting better. Public understanding of GM is growing," said Vanchai Tantivitayapitak, editor of Feature Magazine, which carried three pieces on GM issues between January and October last year.
Thais are not alone in their quest for information. A research paper from the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex in Britain asks whether citizens can help shape policies and hold politicians and civil servants to account and how such citizen participation can be institutionalised.
In tackling what it calls "the accountability deficit", there should be no hiding place for information hoarders, says the paper by Anne Marie Goetz and John Gaventa. One example it gives is a 'trial' by a citizens' jury challenging the British government's lack of transparency on GM and food safety issues.
During the public trial information was provided by a range of experts and stakeholders, which was then processed and analysed. The jury challenged the British government's lack of responsiveness to the issue of environmental health and its lack of transparency on food safety issues.
In Thailand debates and discussions are raised sporadically, sometimes through academic seminars and at others through protests by activists. The main actors on the anti-GM side are BioThai and Greenpeace Southeast Asia while the pro-GM group is led by senior scientists at the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (Biotec).
Current government policy is to allow GM research, but not field tests. At the moment some 13 GM crops, including corn, cotton and pineapple, are in Thailand's laboratories, awaiting the go-ahead for commercialisation if their safety is proven.
"Decision making over GMO is still in the hands of scientists at Biotec and their networks. The best we can do is to make the public aware of this important issue that can ruin our country's agriculture, and hope they would join us in making the right decisions," activist Witoon Lianchamroon of the Biodiversity and Community Rights Action Thailand (BioThai) said.
Businessmen are frustrated. "We just follow the debate – we have no policy on GM products," a spokesperson for Charoen Phokaphan Company, a major food producer, added.
Biotec director Prof Morrakot Tanticharoen says, "We had to play our role in making Thailand ready for GM technology if it one day decides to use this technology."
"It is like making alternatives for the country's development. We are not meaning to push it. We know many people disagree with it but many of them might misunderstand GMO. Anyway, in the end it is up to the government to make these decisions."
The government is clearly facing a dilemma. On the one hand it has allocated 660 million Thai Baht to establish a biotechnology park. On the other, it has announced plans to export organic food – apparently as part of an ambitious policy to make Thailand the world's kitchen.
Away from the debate in the capital, at their village some 450 km northeast of Bangkok, Somkhuan and Thongmuan are busy working on their farms. Somkhuan is looking at producing silk while Thongmuan, expectedly, is keen on organic rice farming.
"I am preparing the soil for a new crop of papaya but this time it is going to be the local breed," Somkhuan says, before inviting a visitor to try out her traditional somtam – Thai papaya salad.
Kamol Sukin is environment editor for The Nation in Thailand.