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Food Irradiation in Asia
Surebeam, an American irradiation company, has been very active recently in Southeast Asia, negotiating in at least three countries to construct facilities. Increased irradiation in Southeast Asia will directly increase international trade, especially in products such as exotic fruits and fish, which are highly valued in wealthy consuming countries. It could indirectly damage the environment as fish farms and other destructive forms of conventional agriculture expand, forcing indigenous peoples from their lands and creating a peonage system of labor.
Recently, the Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided that irradiation could be used in place of chemical or heat treatment to kill pests. For the first time in history, irradiated produce are now allowed and actually encouraged for exportation to the US. The rule will benefit large food producers, processors and exporters at the expense of small farmers. Farmers in Southeast Asia won’t be able to compete with cheap exports, so their land and labor will become susceptible to joint ventures that grow cash crops for consuming nations. Cash crops will be irradiated and shipped at low cost to the industrialized world. As a result, agricultural diversity, and hence ecological sustainability, will be turned a blind eye along with small-scale family farmers.
Thailand: Thailand is home to four irradiation facilities, three of which use the radioactive isotope, Co-60. Two are in Leam Chabang while the others are in Amphur Klong Luang and Amphur Muang. Surebeam, a U.S. irradiation company, has recently announced an agreement with Thai Electron Pasteurized Company, Ltd. to build a state-of-the-art facility near Bangkok. This facility will process around 200 million pounds of fruit, flowers and vegetables.
Currently, Thailand has approved 23 foods for irradiation, including “exotic” fruits. Until recently, fruit imports into the U.S. had to be treated with chemicals or heat to remove pests that, if released into the United States, would threaten domestic agriculture. Since the USDA’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS) now allows irradiation in place of chemical or heat treatments for imported fruits and vegetables, it is likely that Thai exports of exotic fruits to the U.S. will greatly increase.
Vietnam: Surebeam, the same company mentioned earlier, is also building a facility in Vietnam. Surebeam will provide equipment and technology to a new cold storage facility being built by Son Son Company in the city of An Loc, near Ho Chi Minh City. Son Son Company is a private Vietnamese food processing company owned by Mr. Tram Be.
Vietnam allows irradiation of 8 foods; the most significant is fish. The Vietnamese fish market equals 4.6 billion pounds annually. The introduction of an irradiation facility in Vietnam will facilitate trade to importing countries by extending the shelf lives of fish products and ridding them of viruses that run rampant in the destructive and unsustainable shrimp farms. Introducing this technology may maintain the export economy of shrimp, which threatens coastal communities and the environment.
Philippines: As of the end of 2002, Surebeam was negotiating with two local agribusinesses to build an irradiation facility that will cost at least $5 million, possibly near Manila. Surebeam had previously negotiated with the Mayor of Cebu, Tomas Osmena.
Like Thailand, only the agribusiness managers in the Philippines will benefit greatly from the adoption of irradiation as a quarantine measure for exporting exotic fruits, but the smal scale farmers will be severly hit by this technology. For example, the island of Guimaras endured a quarantine of almost fifteen years before the U.S. was satisfied that its mangoes were free from the seed weevil disease, which only benefits the managers, not the farmers. A facility in the Philippines would allow the irradiation of not only mangoes, but also papayas, bananas, and pineapples, directly increasing international trade and destabilizing the local, domestic food security.
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