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8-Misc: ISIS report on Rice Forum in Thailand

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TITLE:  Angry Thai farmers say ban GM rice, demand protection of
        indigenous biodiversity knowledge and wisdom
SOURCE: Institut of Science in Society,
DATE:   September 2000

-------------------- archive: --------------------

Angry Thai farmers say ban GM rice, demand protection of indigenous 
biodiversity knowledge and wisdom

Mae-Wan Ho reports on an extraordinarily invigorating and informative 
gathering of farmers, activists, government officials, academics and 
rice research scientists (with many thanks to tireless interpreter, 
Chalotorn Kansuntisukmongkol, back home on holiday from University of 
California, Davies).

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 August 15. There, they 
met with activists, government officials, academic scientists, 
students and indigenous peoples to hear speakers which 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 of the introduction of GMOs to 
Thailand. Monsanto from next door sent their representative to listen 

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 fine things of life. It is the good intention 
from the heart that would really change people's perception and 
action, 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 gave the 
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 the 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 5 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 4 years led to the loss of both 
the rice crops and the forest.

Prof. Prapas, rice breeder from the Ministry of Agriculture and Day-
ene Siripetra 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 organized a competition on rice varieties. 
This led to many varieties being developed, and for years, the top 
ten 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 yield. Prof. Prapas suggested that genetic engineering may 
be used on traditional varieties to create high yield 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, rice 
research stations and organized rice competition. The Rice Research 
Institute was established to get varieties that were good for export 
(those that won prices in Canada). Of the ten 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.

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 emphasis on high yield with high input. 
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, came 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 fragrance because the 
Ministry of Agriculture is promoting new varieties. The new varieties 
cross with the old and make them lose fragrance. Farmers are in debt 
because merchants reduce the price for 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 
emphasized 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 fertilizers resulted 
in many diseases, while traditional varieties never gave so many 
problems. They also pointed out 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. Siripatra called for a change of paradigm, not just an 
attempt to patch the old one up. The really holistic way is to 
integrate agriculture with culture: rice as life and not rice as 

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

Devlin Kujek from the Barcelona based ngo, GRAIN <> gave 
a very useful review of the transgenic rice engineered to resist 
bacterial blast, BB rice for short; which the International Rice 
Research Institute (IRRI) is to field trial in South East Asia, 
starting in the Philippines. The Philippine's Biosafety Guidelines 
actually state that, "Genetic manipulation or 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 is no existing or forseeable 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. IRRI has in fact caused bacterial 
blight and is 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 to a new form.

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 rice variety modified 
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

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 had the 
same problems with Monsanto's GM cotton that was known 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 

Monsanto was rebutted by a Professor from Prince Songkla University 
who dwelt on the importance of protecting Thailand as a centre of 
rice biodiversity, and 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 yellows, reds and 
black - rich in all kinds of vitamins and minerals.) Another 
passionate speaker from the floor said, "Monsanto, don't try to push 
us! Academics and Government officials ought to try to find a clear 
understanding of 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 are taking an aggressive stand before 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 include 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. "About GMOs: we don't allow the use of 
GMO commercially, only for research."

This brought 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 in creating varieties 
that are sensitive to fertilizers 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 mo difying 
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 names of 
villagers in Thailand who do not want GMOs and tell the Department of 
Agriculture and Development to stop." "Stop talking of benefits of 
GMOs!" "Patenting of rice is robbing us of our liveihood." "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. 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 through trying to fix it 
with GMOs"

In a television debate two days later, Dr. Suthep Limtongkul, 
Director of 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.

Mrs Y. Royals (ISIS Co-ordinator)
c/o Biology Dept Open University
Milton Keynes MK2 2PE
Tel: +44 1908 653318
Fax: +44 1908 654167


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