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Cambodia 'vulnerable' to genetic crop experiments

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"What effect will GM have on my rice?" Cambodia's farmers may wonder.

A

n expert on biodiversity has warned that biotechnology companies might be targeting

Cambodia as a testing ground for their technology.

Jady Smith, project co-ordinator for Cambodia's Biodiversity Enabling Activity (CBEA),

said the lack of policy on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) had left the country

vulnerable.

"Biodiversity is a food security issue," Smith said. "GMOs are likely

to reduce diversity in crops. The benefit [of using GMOs] would be for the corporation,

not the country."

The use of biotechnology -the manipulation of genes in living organisms - has been

hailed by some as a solution to hunger, while others claim it could wreak havoc on

the environment.

Cambodia has no official stance on the use of biotechnology or GMOs, but is working

on a national strategy to decide its position. It was one of more than 100 countries

to sign the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety at the 2000 Convention of Biological

Diversity.

One area of concern to experts around the world is how GMOs might affect farmers.

That is particularly relevant to Cambodia, where 80 percent of the population relies

on the land for a living. Smith said that the current set up meant that some farmers

might already be using GMOs.

At Chamcar Leu Cotton Seeds Station, a farming community 115 kilometers northeast

of Phnom Penh, researcher Suon Seng noted that this year's cotton crop was particularly

resilient to insect attacks.

Seng, a researcher at the Centre d'Etude et de Developpement Agricole Cambodgien

(CEDAC), said: "We are pretty suspicious that those seeds are GMOs, but we are

still investigating."

Ieng Chay Lin, deputy chief at the plantation, admitted it was possible that the

seeds, a gift from a Chinese businessman, might be genetically modified. He confirmed

that local insects had not caused as much damage to the crop as in previous years.

Increased resistance to pests is one characteristic that bio-engineering can produce.

In its latest Human Development Report, the United Nations Development Pro-gramme

(UNDP) recognized the benefits and pitfalls of using GMOs.

The report said biotechnology could offer a partial solution to malnutrition and

famine. UNDP said 33 percent of the population in Cambodia was undernourished, and

52 percent of children underweight. The report proposed developing countries such

as Cambodia look at using GMOs.

However, the UNDP warned that using GMOs was not without risk. It said that GMOs

could have detrimental health and environmental ramifications, and said that there

was a further risk that GMOs could spread unchecked. This is a common concern of

GMO experts.

"Nature is a dynamic system," said CBEA's Smith. "If you put something

in, you may not be able to control it."

If GMOs were introduced into Cambodia on a large scale, the lack of both expertise

and regulatory agencies could make control difficult. However, this could change

under a program funded by the Global Environment Facility.

The eight-year project will help the government, assisted by the CBEA and the Cambodian

Development Corporation, decide its strategy for GMO and fulfill its obligations

under the convention.

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