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Monsanto May Drop GE Corn Investment in Thailand

From: Bangkok Post (Thailand)

Monsanto may ditch GM corn investment


Phitsanulok _ Agribusiness giant Monsanto, a leading developer of genetically modified (GM) crops, has threatened to scrap its plans to invest in GM corn production in Thailand unless the government lifts its ban on open field trials and the commercialisation of transgenic crops.

Poomin Trakoontiwakorn, director of Monsanto's Southeast Asia technology development division, said the US-based company had begun shifting its operation from Thailand to India and the Philippines, where the commercial planting of GM corn and cotton has been approved.

``Over the past four years, we have tried to convince the public and the government to embrace GMOs, but to no avail. So we can't think about expanding our business here,'' Mr Poomin said.

``Due to the unsupportive policy on genetic engineering, it's not surprising our headquarters have begun turning their eyes to other Asian nations, where GMOs are being welcomed,'' he told a press briefing at Monsanto's seed plant in Phitsanulok on Friday.

Monsanto announced in November 2003 a plan to make Thailand a regional base
by 2006 for its GM seed production, starting with Round-up Ready and Bt corn

Monsanto's Round-up Ready corn is resistant to Round-up herbicide produced by the company, while Bt corn is resistant to bollworm, one of the most destructive pests to attack corn and cotton crops.

However, the plan has been hit by the government's ban on open field trials, which was imposed in 1999 after finding that GM cotton crops belonging to Monsanto had spread to nearby farms growing non-GM crops.

GM crops must pass three levels of biosafety tests _ laboratory, greenhouse, and open field trials _ before being endorsed for mass production.

Monsanto has repeatedly yet unsuccessfully lobbied Agriculture and Cooperatives ministers, including Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, and the cabinet to revoke the ban. Efforts have failed due to strong opposition from farmers, environmentalists and consumer groups.

The anti-GMO coalition says GM crops pose a serious threat to native plants, increase investment costs and pose a health threat to the human population.

In terms of basic infrastructure and the skills of its farmers, Mr Poomin said Thailand offered more potential than India and the Philippines as a GM ``seed hub''. The country could earn large revenues from exporting transgenic seeds to a number of Southeast Asian countries, South American countries, as well as some European nations, such as Portugal and Spain.

``It is disappointing that the government has failed to see the benefit and potential of GM crops in the world market,'' he said, adding that he expected the expansion of GM plantations worldwide to prompt the Thai government to fully embrace the technology in the near future.

Monsanto is working on the modification of its Phitsanulok seed plants to raise the production capacity for corn from 12,000 to 19,200 tonnes a year in a bid to prepare for full acceptance of commercial GM crops, he said.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, an alliance of biotechnology and multinational agribusiness firms, 17 countries have adopted commercial GMO planting, including developing countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, China, India, and the Philippines. The total area of land being utilised to grow GM crops in 2004 stood at 81 million hectares, up 20% from 13.3 million hectares in 2003.

Mr Poomin said besides herbicide and pest resistant corn, Monsanto is preparing to launch a series of transgenic crops in the Thai seed market, including a drought-resistant crop, a high Omega-3 oil seed crop and high-nutrient maize crop.

He conceded the possibility of cross-breeding between transgenic and native plant species, but insisted contamination was "controllable". Greenpeace genetic engineering campaigner Varoonvarn Svangsopakul, however, urged the government to stand firm on its GM-free policy, which would protect Thai farmers and consumers from multinational firms' expensive GM crops