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National Sovereignty: Where Does It Belong?

Witoon Laincharoon, Director of BIOTHAI

Every once in a while, the world faces some kind of crisis: be it healthcare, economic, political, or environment. We’re talking about the kind with immediate, deadly impacts that forces the world to come to a standstill. The Covid-19 pandemic is one of them.

But the only thing that could not go under lockdown was the food system. Markets, food shops, supermarkets have remained the only places bustling with life. It was around the same time the Thai government was about to finalize its decision on whether to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) later this year.

Thanks to the work-from-home measure, the issue which had relatively received little interest became the center of public attention including young Thais and those outside the agriculture and economic sectors. The term ‘food security’ has become a buzzword overnight, followed by public campaigns with hashtag #NoCPTPP and #คัดค้านCPTPP circulating all over online platforms.

“The discussion came at the right time. People have just survived the crisis which not only tested the nation’s public healthcare system, but also threatened the food system. This time, the threat was real, and it made them realize that in a time of crisis, what we need the most is food,” says Mr Witoon Lianchamroon, Director of BIOTHAI, a non-profit organization working on food security and protection of bio-diversity through sustainable development and free trade.

Concerns over the national food security has triggered fierce criticisms from both the government officials and the opposition party, resulting in the government backtracking its plan, and setting up three sub-committees to look into the benefits and drawbacks of the agreement for the country, with emphasis on its impacts on medical and agricultural research, namely, rice varieties. The report is expected soon.

Mr Witoon is among those opposing Thailand joining the CPTPP, calling the agreement a “biodiversity pirate”. The contentious issue for Thailand is the intellectual property provisions under the Protection of New Varieties of Plants Convention, known as UPOV1991. Farmers in member countries are prohibited to save and reuse seeds if they contain patented plant materials for 20-25 years, effectively forcing them to buy new seeds every year. By the time those patents expire, the seed companies usually have new improved seeds in the market.

If Thailand’s final decision is to join the CPTPP, it will need to make several amendments such as the duration of patent protection and end the rights of Thai farmers to collect their seeds for next growing season, use them to create a new variety through traditional means, and use them for any other purposes except farming.

National Sovereignty at Stake

The CPTPP is a free-trade agreement between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. Earlier the United States was a member but has recently withdrawn. The member countries’ combined global GDP is around 13.5%, consisting of almost 500 million consumers.

“Thailand will be at a serious disadvantage because it’s one of the few countries which boasts richness in biodiversity while other member countries are either industrialized nations or don’t have many natural resources,” he explains, noting that those who benefit from the provision in question are giant agro-industrial companies which are also leading players in the markets of farming chemicals, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), namely, cotton, soybean seeds, and maize.

“The amendments will not only allow them to introduce their seeds which are normally GMOs and tolerant of their pesticides and herbicides, but also have control over its use,” says the expert who used to work at an agricultural corporation before turning to organic farming.

The Need to Stay Competitive

However, CPTPP proponents view that as a quid pro quo. What Thailand will gain is tariff benefits as well as access to make investments in the member countries. Most importantly, the country will lose its competitive edge at the regional and international levels.

But that also means investors from those countries can invest here too. Considering the fact that most Thai investors and farmers do not have adequate financial resources to investment outside Thailand, the benefits Thailand will enjoy from the pact are too small.

“Together with the risk of seeing the agriculture sector weaken further, it’s not worth at all.”

While it is true as the CPTPP isn’t all about agriculture sector, its supporters fail to give a clear or measures to protect the farm sector, except encouraging the country to enter the agreement first in order to stay competitive. “What they’re trying to say is that we can quit anytime if it works against the country’s interest. But the process isn’t that easy whether it’s joining or quitting. Besides, we’re putting the country’s food security at risk. Remember, the majority of Thais are in the agriculture sector.”

Self-sufficiency Should Be Top Priority

Mr Witoon reveals that several countries including China and the US have revised their trade policy and strategies following the coronavirus crisis’ disruption of the global supply chain system. No longer should countries rely on overseas supply, but instead find alternatives at home or in neighboring countries.

“Basically speaking, keeping the seeds is the basic rights of every farmer. It’s also the rights of humanity…By allowing private corporations to have a major role in determining the fate of our agriculture is simply a mistake. Unless Thailand has a strong law in place, our natural resources will be exploited. The damages will inevitably go to Thai farmers and our food security.”