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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - DuPont presses govt over GM corn crops

DuPont presses govt over GM corn crops

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090325_13.jpg

US-based chemical giant says it is trying to register hybrid corn seeds with Ministry of Agriculture, but opponents warn of dire consequences

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Du Pont, a US-based GMO company, says it hopes to see its corn seeds used in Cambodian fields having already set up an office in the Kingdom last year.

CAMBODIA'S first genetically modified (GM) crops may be on the way, with American chemicals giant DuPont saying it is in the process of registering GM seeds with the Ministry of Agriculture.

"We are proceeding to register our hybrid corn seeds with [the Ministry of Agriculture]... We are open to discuss research collaboration in hybrid materials," said Hsing Ho, Du-Pont's managing director in Singapore, in a speech at an agriculture and technology seminar in Phnom Penh on Monday.

DuPont opened its first office in Cambodia in 2008.

A DuPont representative in Phnom Penh said the company is still studying the Cambodian market, and that it has not developed a plan for local operations. He added that DuPont attended the Monday event at the government's invitation.

DuPont is one of the top makers of genetically modified seeds, or seeds whose DNA is altered to offer benefits such as higher yields, or enhanced resistance to disease.

We ... need to do more research into the health and environmental impact.

GM crops are grown in 25 countries worldwide with nearly 800 million hectares under cultivation in 2008, say figures from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), which attended the seminar.  

GM crops, also often called genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified organisms (GMO), are a subject of controversy, and opponents claim they pose health and environmental risks. The Ministry of Agriculture told the Post that no

GM crops are grown in Cambodia, and they require special permission.

A ministry spokesman said that the government is under pressure to adopt the crops, but that the benefits of higher yields do not offset possible damage to Cambodia's food exports.

"Many countries do not allow GM goods, so if we start allowing those crops here, it could lead countries to stop buying from us," said Hean Vanhan, secretary of state for the Ministry of Agriculture.

"We also need to do more research into the health and environmental impact of GMO," he said.

But one group that backs GE crops said Cambodia could benefit from reduced malnutrition and increased food security.

"Cambodia has a lot to gain from the use of GE crops," said a spokesman from ISAAA, a nongovernmental group.

"The three most common GM crops have been corn, cotton and soy - corn is doing wonderfully well, especially in China and India," said Daniel Otunge by telephone from Kenya. "For developing countries, the first concern has to be feeding its own population ... this is a legitimate concern for exporting farmers, but at this point, GM crops are so widespread that it is becoming less of an issue," he said.

Five European countries ban the import of GM crops, and some African and South American states prohibit some types of GE crops, according to Greenpeace. Sixty countries require the labelling of foods containing GM ingredients, according to the American Association for Health Freedom.  

Otunge said that concerns about possible environmental and health side effects are overblown. "Over the past 12 years when GM crops have been widespread, there has been no evidence they impact health. Ultimately, they help the environment by reducing the need for toxic sprays," he said.

But according to Greenpeace, an environmental watchdog, Cambodia stands to lose by adopting GM crops. "For Cambodia, I can't see how it would make any sense [to use GE crops].... In the age of climate change, genetically engineered crops are a threat to food security," said Jan van Aken, a GE expert.

He cited South Africa as an example, where 200,000 hectares of GE crops were lost recently for unexplained reasons. "There is not a single example of where genetically modified varieties have seen higher yields. There have been examples where genetically modified crops have resisted insects for two or three years, but new insects come and threaten the crops." 

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