FOLLOWING growing pressure over its intention to help farmers, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) this past week decided to amend the bill one last time in an attempt to reach compromise. But still, the bill’s content was tied up with complicated plant varieties and plant variety protection Acts, and so was viewed by those who opposed it as putting farmers at a disadvantage.
The result? The NLA decided at the last minute to withdraw it from the rushed deliberation, putting it on hold “indefinitely”, and ensuring it would not be brought back and again tabled for deliberation and enactment before the NLA has to adjourn on March 17 for the election.
“I did not regret, but felt ‘sorry for it’ not being passed under this NLA’s term,” said key NLA drafter Kittisak Rattanawaraha. “It would be more difficult to pass such a bill in the future,” added the man who has pushed for the bill since late last year.
This was the first bill in the country’s history to aim for a holistic rice production framework. It became highly controversial and was rewritten several times before the final draft was finished and suddenly scrapped by the NLA.
The 20-page bill was broken into six parts – creation of a new rice production and management policy body, outlining the Rice Department’s authority, delineating the authority of concerned officials, a Big Data regimen for trade in rice grains, rice production management and supervision, and associated penalties.
Much of the controversy lay in the fifth section – rice production management and supervision – leading to issues of rice varieties and their trade becoming a heated topic of discussion in the Kingdom.
The original draft version carried that issue in Article 26, which banned trade in rice varieties without state certification but with an exception in place for small-scale farming. Opponents worried that farmers would be forced to use only varieties produced and sold by farm business firms, including major corporates, and jailed if they violated the article.
Alternative farming experts and farmers’ rights groups strongly opposed the approach to regulation of varieties, and the drafters decided to kill the article while trying to address what was seen to be missing: the rights of farmers to produce and trade in their own rice varieties.
However, the latest amendment was based on the content of the Plant Variety and Plant Variety Protection acts which are seen as having placed farmers at a disadvantage in the first place, according to Witoon Lianchamroon, a director of the Biodiversity-Sustainable Agriculture-Sovereignty Action Thailand (BioThai). The group advocates for food bio-diversity and sovereignty as well as for community rights.
Bowing to pressure
Aiming to raise the production standard of plant varieties, including rice, being grown in the country, Thailand 40 years ago introduced the Plant Variety Act. Those breaking the law faced varying degrees of penalties.
In 1999, the country bowed to international pressure and introduced the new Plant Variety Protection Act, which was aimed at protecting the rights of commercial breeders.
Witoon’s organisation fought along with other sustainable farming groups and managed to push for protection for local breeders, resulting in the classification of plant varieties protected under the Act. The first addressed in the law were the “new” varieties, mostly originating from commercial breeders. According to BioThai, local plant variety breeders and developers have not yet produced such new varieties and registered them for protection by the state – but big agro firms have done so.
Under this Act, new varieties cannot be bred or further developed further under threat of penalties for violating the breeders’ rights.
The second area addressed in the law is “indigenous” plant varieties. Witoon said none of “indigenous” rice varieties is registered under this law, as the registration process is very complicated. There are about 20,000 rice samples housed in Rice Department facilities to protect genetic diversity, including indigenous varieties.
Finally, “general” plant varieties are also mentioned in the act. Breeders using these varieties must share benefits to a fund set up under the Act, and breeders using “indigenous” varieties for their breeding or development must share some benefits with the owners or communities which own them – the only “win” for sustainable farming groups in the act, said Witoon.
The concepts and penalties under these two Acts were replicated in the latest amendment to the rice bill in the last ditch attempt by the NLA to address farmers’ rights.
Witoon said the amendment showed an intent to address farmers’ rights that should be retained in a future bill. However, the revised bill remained based on the two previous troubled Acts, and so still fell short of address farmers’ rights – and even added new dangers to Thai farmers. He cited articles 27/1 and 27/3 in particular.
On the positive side, the latest changes specifically recognised the need for farmers to continue using local rice varieties that they have come to rely on. However, the amendment under Article 27/1 was written in a way that excluded local varieties from being endorsed by the state on par with the privately developed (ie corporate) varieties. That could prevent the widespread use and breeding of local varieties, and lead to domination of the market by big agro firms. Those harmful clauses should be removed in a future bill, Witoon said.
More critical was Article 27/3, which had been newly added by the NLA. Witoon said the clause should not include “new” rice varieties for state promotion and support. As estimated by his organisation, up to 80 per cent of new varieties of a range of plant species were protected under the Plant Variety Protection Act.
This clause, he said, would further cement protection for “new” rice varieties produced by big agro firms. In Witoon’s view, lawmakers should not have based the bill’s language on the previous acts, which already protected the rights of commercial breeders at the expense of the rights of farmers.
India’s Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers’ Rights Act should be explored as a model, Witoon suggested.
“But what was better is the fact that they decided to stop and let the next government decide whether to go ahead. With this decision, at least we can have more time and room for participation and begin again together,” he said.
NLA whip Somchai Sawangkarn, told The Nation Weekend that the bill drafters had good intentions and wished to benefit farmers when they introduced the bill. As a farmers’ leader, Kittisak wished to see a bill that belonged to and benefited the farmers, Somchai said.
He rejects allegations that the NLA had a hidden agenda to help the big agro business.
Somchai said Kittisak wished to push for a platform where farmers could bargain for power. As such, the bill’s first intent was to create a policy body where farmers’ representatives would help to drive and regulate Thailand’s rice production.
From that start, other elements were added – including rice variety production and trade – partly to fix damage to the industry resulting from the flux in rice prices during the rice mortgage scheme under the Yingluck Shinawatra government, said Somchai, a former activist who helped push for a policy body and restructuring of the sugar industry.
The drafters, he conceded, had limited knowledge about rice variety production, and fell short in properly addressing the issue.
The drafters agreed that time was running out and the bill should not proceed, Somchai said. “I still see the bill as a good opportunity for our farmers, who have never had a policy platform of their own, to take care of their business. I just hope that the next government would consider it and make it come true,” said Somchai.