ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

Date:  9 March 2001

JAKARTA, Mar 6, 2001 (Inter Press Service via COMTEX)

Indonesia's Ministry of Environment has joined non-governmental organizations in opposing the use of transgenic crops in this country until they are proven to pose no harm to humans and to the environment.

This pits the ministry against another government department, the Ministry of Agriculture, which earlier this month issued a degree that has opened the door for the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Indonesia.

The decree, issued by Agriculture Minister Bungaran Saragih on Feb. 6, allows the limited release of transgenic cotton Bt DP 5690B in Sulawesi, as a quality crop genus under the name of NuCOTN 35B or Bollgard in seven regencies in South Sulawesi.

Indonesia still imports cotton, and textiles are one of the country's major non-oil exports. The cotton plant does not grow well in Indonesia and other tropical countries, including the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand.

Transgenic technology involves the transfer or insertion of genes from other species, to achieve what its supporters say is higher quality or higher resistance to disease.

Transgenic cotton is said to have higher productivity, with yields of two to three tons per hectare, while local cotton yields only 401 kilograms per hectare.

Azikin Solthan of Bantaeng regency in south Sulawesi says: "Cotton farmers using transgenic plantation methods can get an additional 2.5 million rupiah ($263) to three million rupiah ($315) per hectare through this system."

But Environment Minister Sonny Keraf's opposition may thwart such plans. While he and green groups say they are "totally not against biotechnology," they wantIndonesia to use caution when it comes to GMOs.

"If it is proven that transgenic products are safe, it is good," says Keraf."But in the meantime we will insist on a precautionary principle. If there are problems in the future, history will record us as the party who did everything to protect the public."

At least five non-government groups are already seeking the annulment of the Ministry of Agriculture Decree No. 107/2001.

"The decree violates the precautionary principle of environmental conservation and the precautionary principle cannot be implemented if public opinion is not heard," argues Hira Jhamtani, board member of the National Consortium on Forest and Nature Conservation (Konphalindo).

Konphalindo, the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law, Indonesia Pesticide Action Network, the Indonesian Consumers Foundation, and South Sulawesi Consumers Foundation plan to file a lawsuit with the State Administrative Court if the agriculture ministry does not revoke the
decree by Mar. 14.

"The issue of GMOs has to be made a public debate," insists Jhamtani. "There has to be a national consensus on what sort of GMOs do we really need, or even do we really need GMOs."

She adds, "There is a big question mark on the usefulness of this Bt cotton because there is an indigenous variety that is being tested and it was doing quite well in South Sulawesi. But the government didn't make the seeds available to farmers."

Keraf sees other motives behind the decree. "The whole issue of transgenic crops in Sulawesi is merely trade politics," he says, apparently referring to a test by agrochemical company PT Monagro Kimia to plant BT cotton.

PT Monagro Kimia is a subsidiary of the world's second largest seed producer and third largest agrochemical company, Monsanto. Based in the United States, the corporation has developed genetically engineered products like soybeans that resist specific herbicides.

Monagro has already planted and harvested 500 hectares of transgenic cotton on plantations in the Bantaeng and Bulukumba regencies in South Sulawesi. Some of the products have been exported and the others distributed to local markets.

In spite of the growing controversy, Bantaeng's Solthan says the local administration will continue
developing transgenic cotton plantations to achieve maximum quality crops, arguing that there is no scientific evidence to prove that the transgenic process will harm nature.

Antonius Suwanto, a researcher from Bogor Agricultural Institute and Southeast Asia Regional Center for Tropical Biology, adds: "We should not be too stern in maintaining the precautionary principle as it will become counterproductive."

"The important thing is our country needs to master biotechnology in order to manage our biodiversity, which is one of the richest in the world," he says. "If Indonesia fails to anticipate the development of technology, it will only end up being consumers of it, and not pioneers,
such as the case in micro-electronic and computer technology."

But some experts say the ministerial decree allowing Bantaeng and other regencies in South Sulawesi to grow transgenic cotton is legally flawed.

Says Achmad Santosa, founder and former executive director of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law: "The decree violated many laws." Among the laws violated, Santosa says, is one on environmental management that protects the public's right to information and
participation in decision-making.

The obligation to conduct an environmental impact assessment on the use of transgenic crops was also not fulfilled, according to Santosa.  Yet he admits that Indonesia lacks a comprehensive legal framework to deal with the use of GMOs. Says Santosa: "The issue of GMOs is unfamiliar and something new for Indonesia."

The only legal framework with which to address GMOs is a 1999 joint ministerial decree on food and natural product safety. But it does not include labelling, environmental impact assessment, risk management or prior informed consent.

This is why, Jhamtani says, "While regulations have yet to be issued, the government must impose a moratorium on tests or planting of transgenic crops."

The environment ministry is already busy drafting regulations that will include the rules adopted by the Cartagena protocol on biosafety. Indonesia has yet to ratify the protocol itself, but the government is said to be "working on it."

"Hopefully, around April or May, the new decree will be issued," Keraf says.

Copyright (c) 2001 IPS-Inter Press Service.  All Rights Reserved.

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