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As the TNCs Catch You: An Analysis of the liberalization of biotechnological products in the Thai-US FTA PDF Print E-mail
Written by Witoon Lianchamroon   
Monday, 11 July 2005 15:52

One of the books the Thai Prime Minister suggested his cabinet members read was "As the Future Catches You" by Juan Enriquez, a Mexican writer. The book's contents relate to the fact that countries need to catch up with the development of biotechnology. Otherwise they will be alienated and left behind.

Juan Enriquez captivates the reader with fascinating data and a presentation that underlines the development of biotechnology. But for developing countries, the development of biotechnology does not mean liberalizing GM products, or recognizing and promoting patent rights on biotechnology, or liberalizing foreign investment on biotechnology, as certain decision-makers of this country believe. By giving in to such propaganda, this country may see itself caught in the claws of transnational corporations (TNCs) instead of being freed from the catch of the future, as warned by Enriquez.

The US role in multilateral negotiations As the United States is now the world's biggest producer of genetically modified (GM) products, it has made every attempt to push countries to accept GM crops and products. The TNCs that control almost the entire market for GM seeds are also located in the US.

GM crops planted between 1996 and 2002 (Unit: Million hectares)

Country 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
US 1.5 8.1 20.5 28.7 30.3 35.7 39.0
Argentina 0.1 1.4 4.3 6.7 10.0 11.8 13.5
Canada 0.1 1.3 2.8 4 3 3.2 3.5
China 1.1 1.8 * 0.3 0.5 1.5 2.1
Others <0.1 <0.1 0.1 0.1 <0.5 <0.5 <0.5

Source: Adapted from James Clive, ISAAA (1996-2002)

In May 2003, the US government officially submitted a protest letter to the World Trade Organization opposing the European Union's measures on the suspension of GM crop planting, as well as its new measures on GM labeling and traceability. This was not only meant to put pressure on the EU, but also gave a hint to developing countries that any strict regulations in relation to GM products might lead to US economic sanctions. It should be noted that imports of GM products can be suspended according to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which came into effect on 13 June 2003 when 50 member countries of the Convention on Biodiversity ratified it.

In the initial stages, the US and some developing countries such as Argentina, which got involved by opening up several million hectares of land to GM crops, voiced strong opposition to the protocol in vain. Most of the signatories used the "Precautionary Principle" to reject GM crop imports as a necessary means of protecting biological diversity and safety. In this regard, US efforts to retaliate by challenging strict measures on GM materials as violations of the WTO's Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, Sanitary & Phytosanitary Measures and Agreement on Agriculture has not been supported by most member nations of the WTO.

Since the Third Ministerial of the WTO in Seattle in July 1999, the US has urged the establishment of a Working Party on Biotechnology and pushed for a Ministerial Declaration to accept the safety of GM products and recognize the future viability of GMOs (1). The proposal, however, was strongly opposed particularly by Peru, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, the Dominican Republic, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Egypt, Haiti, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Honduras, Cuba, Bolivia, Nigeria, and Senegal. These countries argued that the GMO issue advocated by the US should be negotiated according to the biosafety protocol. In the end, the Working Party could not be established (2).

Despite its failure to push the WTO into accepting the liberalization of biotech products, the US succeeded in citing the Agreement on Agriculture to press Bolivia and Sri Lanka to cancel plans to ban GMO imports in 2001(3). In February 2001, Thailand's Food and Drug Administration was also warned that the Ministry of Public Health's extremely strict regulations on GMO labeling might bring about retaliation on Thai exports to the US (4). This was why the proposed threshold for labeling products as GM if they contained 1% or more of GM material, as urged by consumer organizations in Thailand, was increased to 5%.

At the meeting of the senior officials of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Khon Kaen in June 2003, the US tried so hard to press this case that the trade representative of Japan had to declare that apart from Japan, most countries in Asia could not accede to the US proposals (5). When its push to liberalize biotech products and adopt other policies, such as patents on life form, failed to materialize in multilateral negotiations, the US focused more on bilateral and regional free trade negotiations. In a statement at the International Economic Institute on 8 May 2003, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said "special product sensitivities" will be part of every FTA the US will make with other countries (6).

Therefore, these issues were included in the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) co-signed by Thailand's Minister of Commerce Adisai Bhotaramik and Robert Zoellick at Los Cabos in 2001.

TIFA includes the following topics: (7) 1. Trade and investment facilitation and liberalization; 2. Intellectual property rights (IPRs); 3. Regulations affecting policies on trade and investment; 4. Information and communication technology as well as biotech policy; 5. Trade and capacity building; 6. Issues connected to WTO/APEC; and 7. Other economic issues agreed upon by both parties

Behind the US government are the biotech TNCs No sooner did President George W Bush announce his agreement to the Thai-US Free Trade Agreement on 20 October 2003 (8) during the APEC Summit in Bangkok, than the lobbying byGMO interests was actively renewed. Several years ago, they had very little success in pushing Thailand into accepting the commercial planting of GM crops (9).

On 9 January 2004, Christopher "Kit" Bond, a Republican Senator from Missouri, met with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (10). One day before his meeting with the Thai Prime Minister, the Senator also met with Environment Minister Suwit Khunkitti. Bond's meeting with the prime minister was a result from a letter dated 17 October 2004, which he co-signed with six other Senators (11) - Max Baucus, Gordon Smith, Patty Murray, John Breaux, Conrad Burns and Craig Thomas - to support the US's FTA negotiations with Thailand. This shows that behind the FTA deal between these two countries were interest groups in the US that benefited from the deal, especially Monsanto - a biotech TNC affiliated with Pharmacia - whose headquarters is in Missouri.

Monsanto provided financial support to Bond's election campaign. It gave him the biggest election donation any US senators had ever got. The financial support he received from agribusinesses was also bigger than that provided to other senators (12).

An analysis on the Corruption of American Agriculture by Tad Williams also found that besides being a US senator, Christopher "Kit" Bond was on the Monsanto executive board too! (13)

It should be noted that apart from Monsanto, the life science industry has paid a huge amount of money through political and policy activities to solicit support for their interests. Between 1989 and 2003, biotech corporations spent over US$12 million supporting election campaigns. Seventy-seven percent of this election funding was earmarked for the Republican Party. Also, between 1998 and 2002, US$143 million was spent by these firms to lobby the US government and concerned agencies to protect and promote their benefits (14).

With such massive funding, US government policies and operations have been geared towards protecting the benefits of biotech corporations and agribusiness more than serving the interests of small-scale farmers and consumers in general. According to the report on the Corruption of American Agriculture, of the 10 members of the House Agriculture Committee in 1994, seven of them were financially supported by biotech firms. Not surprisingly, a country that takes pride in its democracy and tries to push other nations to follow its economic and political model has paid no attention to most American consumers' demand for GMO labeling. Moreover, it employs aggressive measures against other countries which adopt policies to protect the interests of their farmers and consumers.

American Consumers' Attitude toward GM Foods during 1997-2001(15)

Pollster Duration GMO rejection (%) GMO labeling (%)
ABC News June 2001 52 93
Pew Charitable Trust March 2001 * 75
Angus Reid Group Co. Ltd. June 2000 51 *
USA WEEKEND Online March 2000 * 79
The Economist January 2000 57 *
MSNBC Live Vote Results January 2000 * 81
BSMG Worldwide September 1999 * 92
Edelman Public Relations Worldwide September 1999 * 70
Time Magazine January 1999 58 81
Angus Reid Group Co. Ltd. 1998 48 *
Novartis February 1997 * 93
Vance Publishing February 1995 * 92

* No inquiry made about this topic

The abovementioned analysis was made to alert the Thai government that behind the US negotiations, at bilateral and multilateral levels, are the TNCs. Also the Thai public should always bear in mind that behind the Thai negotiating team may be agribusiness interests too.

Impacts of the liberalization of genetically modified products There are two major types of GM products exported by the US to Thailand: GE food and GE crops. This article will focus more on the latter type, which the Thai government allows and which has had a tremendous effect on the country's agricultural production.

Generally, plant varieties used by Thai farmers are developed by conventional breeding, whereby at least two plant varieties are crossbred. Quantitatively, most of the seeds used by farmers in every planting season are those saved from their own farms as well as those developed and bred by government agencies (see table below). Meanwhile, almost all of the seeds trade is in the hands of TNCs and the joint venture enterprise between Charoen Pokphand and its foreign counterparts.

Eyeing enormous profits in Thailand, the American TNCs aim to control the seeds market, where the producer is the government, as well as the seeds that farmers have saved for further planting. Apart from corn, soybean and rice shown in the table, the TNCs are also interested in many other plant varieties grown in Thailand, including cotton and papaya. For example, in 1997 Monsanto executives planned to open a cotton seeds market in Thailand, aiming to make sales of 1,800 million baht. If Monsanto succeeds in pressing the Thai government to agree to GM crop planting under the FTA, it will make a huge profit of 32,000 million baht during the first 5-10 years of operations. The profits could probably rise to over 75,000 million baht in the next couple of decades.

Yet the overall impacts on Thailand cannot be evaluated by taking into account only the seeds market. If the multinational corporations can take monopoly control of the seeds used by the farmers, it will mean that national agricultural and food production is entirely at the mercy of foreigners. An obvious case in point is the fact that two-thirds of the world's GM seeds are require farmers to use herbicides specified by the seed owners. A minister in the current Thai administration recently said that if the US could plant GM crops, Thailand should be able to do so with no fear. Such a statement, either made out of the speaker's misguided vision of being part of the "new ideas, new actions" government or as resulting of his being consumption of the TNCs' "information", clearly shows how biotech industry propaganda had made the government willing to welcome GMOs from the US. These people are "ignorant&qout; or "pretend to be ignorant" of the fact that the GE cotton covers two-thirds of the total US areas planted to cotton. And this vast coverage is the result of the Republican government's subsidies to cotton production and exports. For every acre of cotton an American farmer grew, they got US$230 in subsidy support because transgenic cotton planted by American farmers cost three times more that that grown in an African country like Burkina Faso (25).

Thailand's not too distant neighbour India allowed Monsanto's "bollguard" GE cotton to be planted in the country in 2002. Just in the first season, over 70% of the farmers in Andra Pradesh-India's second biggest cotton-growing state-suffered devastating losses. Apart from dependence on chemicals, the yields and quality of GE cotton fiber were also lower than those of the Indian native cotton.

Proposals to the government and people of Thailand The Thai government should by no means allow the US to press for the GE crops for commercial purposes. Before commercial planting of GE crops in the country is permitted, other issues such as the environment, health and Thailand's future should be considered in addition to commercial objectives. Even limited planting of GE crops could bring about genetic contamination and the destruction of biological diversity, on which our lives and economy are based. The decision on the GMOs should be made only by the farmers, consumers and citizens of Thailand. It must not result from the pressure by the American biotech multinationals.

The successful push for the patent rights to life forms or the pressure put on Thailand to become a member of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) in order to accept the UPOV 1991 meant that the government agreed to change domestic laws so that farmers were prohibited from farm save seed and exchange seeds among themselves. Such acceptance violates the basic rights of the farmers and their communities, which are provided by the Constitution. Moreover, it is destructive to the country's cultural basis on which biological diversity is created. It also allows foreigners to take possession of nation biological resources through the enforcement of patent laws on life forms.

It is more likely that the national agribusiness giant will collaborate with the US transnationals and interest groups to support Thailand's acceptance of biotech products and the IPR regime recognized by the industrialized countries. Thailand's agribusiness giants have increasingly cultivated closer business relations with the transnationals. If these business giants can conclude successful business deals, Thai farmers and people will simply lose in this negotiating battle. We need to monitor closely the moves of the Thai agribusiness giants and the transnationals, which are behind the promotion of biotech policies.

So far, the farmers and people of Thailand have been excluded from decision-making on biotech policies. If the Thai government facilitated the meeting of an American senator who represents the American transnational interests with the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister at Government House on 8-9 January 2004, it should provide similar rights to Thai farmers and people.

To decide an FTA with the US, based on reading the book " …“As the Future Catches You" ¯Â¿Â½ and the one-sided information provided by agribusiness and bio-industrial corporations, will definitely lead Thai farmers and the agricultural sector to ruin.

1. Paragraph 29 (vi) under the Section on Agriculture in the Ministerial Text of 19th October for the WTO Ministerial meeting Measures Affecting Trade in Agricultural Biotechnology Products. Communication from the United States, 27 July 1999, Preparations for the 1999 Ministerial Conference - Negotiations on Agriculture. WT/GC/W/288. August 4, 1999.

2. Khor M.: WTO biotech Working Party opposed by majority, South-North Development Monitor (SUNS), November 7, 1999.

3. The US War on Biosafety : Renewed Aggression by a Rogue State, June 2003

4. GM foods: Sanctions threatened over labels, The Nation, July 19, 2001.

5. US push on GMOs runs into trouble, The Nation, June 3, 2003;

6. Zoellick Says FTA Candidates Must Support U.S. Foreign Policy, Inside US Trade, May 16, 2003

7. US and Thailand Sign Bilateral TIFA, The American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand

8. President Bush Announces United States Intends to Negotiate a Free Trade Agreement with Thailand, Fact Sheet Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:http://usinfo.state.gov)

9. It is possible that the Ministry of Agriculture's effort to push for the revocation of the 3 April 2001 cabinet resolution, which banned GM crops field trials, was one of the US conditions that also included the call for active abolition of products made in violation of IPRs.

10. http://www.thaigov.go.th/news/schedule/47/sc09jan47.htm

11. Press Release of Committee of Finance, United States Senate, Friday, October 17, 2003

12. The money received might be higher owing to partial disclosure of information; for further details please see www.opensecrets.com

13. The Corruption of American Agriculture (2001),Tad Williams, Americans for Democratic Action Education Fund , www.adaction.org, adaction@ix.netcom.com

14. Food Fight, Vikki Kratz, Center for Responsive Politic and www.opensecrets.com

15. From an article on "GMOs updates and Thailand's solutions to policy making" by Witoon Lianchamroon.

16. 2001 figures from the Pacific Seeds Company.

17. Source: Private Investment in Agricultural Research and International Technology Transfer in Asia, Agricultural Economic Report No. 805, USDA, 1996.

18. Data from the Agricultural Extension Department, 2003.

19. Data from the Pacific Seeds Company, 2003. .

20. An estimate based on the data gained from the Ministry of Agriculture and Charoen Pokphand in 2003.

21. An estimate based on an interview given by a Monsanto executive in 1997.

22. Today, 90% of corn varieties are in the hands of CP, DeKalb and Cargil, of which the latter two firms have been taken over by Monsanto. The estimated increase in the value of seeds is based on the assumption that future use of GM corn seeds will be two times higher than that of hybrid corn seeds.

23. The value of GM soybean seeds is estimated to be five times higher than that of open hybrids. In the future, the GM soybean seed value might rise two times higher, as the market is completely monopolized.

24. The price of GM rice seeds is estimated to be two times higher than that of normal rice, and the price will be five times higher in the long term.

25. Cultivating Poverty: The Impact of US Cotton Subsidies on Africa. Oxfam Briefing Paper no. 30.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 27 November 2008 13:54
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