The government has denied the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the agricultural sector amid persistent reports that some local farmers may already be cultivating genetically engineered “hybrid” seeds, warning that countries could restrict or ban the import of Cambodian agricultural products if use of the biotechnology is confirmed.
GMOs are highly controversial and many countries prohibit their use or import. In agriculture, genetically modified (GM) plants are created in a laboratory by splicing the genetic material of another organism into a seed’s DNA to offer benefits such as higher yields or resistance to drought or disease. While scientists continue to debate the potential health risks of GM foods, many countries have restricted or banned them citing health, environmental and commercial concerns.
Claims of GMO use in Cambodia go back over a decade, with reports alleging the Ministry of Agriculture approved trials of genetically modified Bt cotton in the early 2000s and subsequently licensed several varieties of GM corn. There have also been sporadic reports of smallholder plantings of GM corn near the Thai and Vietnamese borders, as well as farmers planting Bt cotton seed purchased from China.
Hean Vanhan, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture, cast doubt on the veracity of the reports, stating firmly that Cambodian farmers have never taken up GM seeds – and the government would like to keep it that way.
“We are still not using any GM seeds for cultivation as they remain highly controversial in the international market, and we are dependent on exports so must comply with market trends,” he said. “If we allow GMOs to exist in our market it would have an impact on our exports as some countries do not trust them.”
Vanhan noted, however, that the government has never formally banned GM seeds or issued any regulations to prevent their import or cultivation “because there is no definitive proof that they are harmful”.
The use of GMOs in agriculture has grown immensely since their first commercial application in 1996. Over 185 million hectares of GM crops were planted in 26 countries last year, according to International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), an industry-affiliated organisation.
The United States, where 72.9 million hectares of GM crops are under cultivation, is the world’s biggest producer of GM foods – and the biggest consumer. However, Europe is largely opposed to GMOs in agriculture, with most EU countries banning their farmers from growing them and strictly regulating the labelling of the GM foods they import. Other countries, including China, South Korea and Japan, have imposed full or partial bans on imports of GMOs.
Cambodia has no official stance on GMOs, but introduced a regulatory framework for the control and management of genetically engineered organisms after ratifying the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2003.
Sam Vitou, executive director of agricultural organisation CEDAC, said while the government appears to have blocked efforts by Monsanto and other GMO producers to market their products in Cambodia, there are fears local farmers could inadvertently be sowing their fields with GM seeds imported from Thailand, Vietnam and China.
“Even though the Ministry of Agriculture has not opened our market to Monsanto our agricultural sector could be threatened by the unofficial flow of [seed imports from] neighbouring countries,” he said.
Vietnam has embraced GMOs, approving at least 14 varieties of GM corn and eight varieties of GM soybean for cultivation, while indicating plans to have up to half of its farmland planted with transgenic crops by 2020. Thailand has waffled on GMO support, taking a more measured approach after field trials of GM papayas began contaminating nearby crops, resulting in several countries banning its papayas from their markets. To date, the country has approved 15 varieties of GM crops, mostly corn.
Vitou said Cambodian farmers unable to identify GMOs or unaware of the ramifications of their use could be lured into purchasing imported GM seeds from traders promising easier cultivation and higher yields.
Claudius Bredehoeft, a Cambodia-based agrifood specialist for German development agency GIZ, said the government should take a firmer stance – either for or against GMOs – if it intends to control them. Moreover, it should educate local farmers on how to identify genetically modified seeds, especially in the absence of mandatory labelling requirements.
“Conventional breeding, hybrid and GMO are often mixed up and it would be great to have more awareness about the different techniques,” he said.
“The farmer should be trained about GMO and be able to identify it through clear labelling when the seed trader comes along.”
The confusion extends to the media, which often blurs the line between hybrid and GM seeds or incorrectly assumes that all Monsanto, Dow and Syngenta seed varieties are genetically modified.
A news report published online last year by Monash University’s School of Journalism made the explosive claim that over 100 families in Kandal province’s Kbal Koh district switched to planting Monsanto GM corn about a decade ago on the advice of local Agriculture Ministry officials.
Bun Tounsimona, director of Kandal province’s Agriculture Department, categorically rejected the report’s claims, insisting he had personally inspected farms in Kbal Koh district and did not find any GM plantings there.
“We use only hybrid seeds for corn farming as they provide high yields, but never GM seeds,” he said, adding that farmers had been warned not to use GM seeds because of the possible health concerns and risk it could restrict their exports to certain markets.
While Monsanto has not established an office in Cambodia, another American GMO giant, DuPont, entered the local market in 2008.
Tuot Saravuth, director of DuPont Cambodia, said the company only imports and distributes non-GM varieties of its Pioneer brand seeds in the domestic market.
“We cannot import GM seeds as we must comply with the government’s regulations,” he said. “We only have hybrid seeds, which give high productivity for [corn to be used in] feed mills.”
Four crops – corn, soybean, cotton and canola – account for nearly 99 percent of global GM acreage. GM varieties of rice have been developed and tested in field trials, but have never been commercially grown.
Hun Lak, vice president of the Cambodia Rice Federation, stressed the importance of keeping GMOs out of the Kingdom’s rice sector, adding that Cambodian rice has been tested and certified as GMO-free.
“Our farmers farm according to industry guidelines and market demands,” he said. “If GM rice is grown it will damage our export market because it is controversial and overseas buyers don’t trust GMO.”