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Thailand Says Nine Farms Contaminated By Genetically Modified Crops - 2004-09-21

Nine farms in Thailand have been found to be contaminated by genetically modified crops. The announcement comes after a scandal shut down a big part of the country's program to test genetically modified crops. Thai agricultural officials say the farms where the tainted plants were found are near the Khon Kaen agricultural research station. The research station is one of the country's largest suppliers of papaya seeds, an important staple food in Thailand. Among other things, the station tests plants that have had their genes modified, an experimental process that aims to make plants resistant to disease or to improve crop yields.

The latest findings come several days after the government revealed that some research facilities improperly sold genetically modified papaya seeds to farmers.

The discovery of genetically modified (GM) plants on private farms is drawing fire from environmental groups. Many oppose the development and commercial use of (GM) plants because of fears they could present health hazards, or harm natural plant life. Varoonvarn Svangsopkul is with the environmental group Greenpeace in Southeast Asia. She says the contamination is likely to be more widely spread than so far reported, because once the GM seeds are released into the environment they cannot be controlled. "It will, you know, after it spreads it can cross-pollinate with non-GM papaya and then it will produce GM papaya from that," said Ms. Varoonvarn. "That's one thing, it will contaminate. It's a kind of genetic pollution." The agricultural ministry says that tests found 41 GM-tainted samples on nine farms out of more than 1,000 samples tested. The ministry says more work is needed to find out if the government's experimental site was the source of the contamination. Because of the seed-selling scandal, the government says the GM studies can only continue in safe laboratory settings. It did not cancel the overall program, which is a joint project with Cornell University in the United States.

Ms. Varoonvarn said the government pursued the GM program before enough was known about the potential effects to humans and the environment. "The problem is this thing hasn't been proven safe, and there is no research done on the effect of GM papaya," she said. The Unites States is the world's biggest producer of genetically modified crops. In Asia, only China and the Philippines have large GM crops.