Advance of the biotech giants

Down to Earth No 43, November 1999

Farmers' groups and NGOs supporting them in south-east Asia are concerned that a second Green Revolution is gathering pace, fuelled by advances in genetic engineering. These developments involve close collaboration between international and national research institutions and the private sector – mainly giant biotech companies. A paper by NGOs from Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia argues that hybrid varieties and genetically-modified (GM) maize present a huge threat to food security and agricultural sustainability.

Maize (corn) is one of the most important food crops in Southeast Asia where Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines are the main producers (10, 5 and 3.8 million tonnes respectively in 1998). Indonesian maize production and consumption still follow broadly traditional patterns compared with the Philippines and Thailand. For example, in Indonesia more than 80% of maize produced is for human consumption, whereas in the Philippines and Thailand (and 'Northern' countries) most maize goes into animal feed production. In Central Java, maize is the staple food of the rural poor in the 'hungry season' before the main rice harvest. Also in Indonesia as many as 95% of farmers still plant maize seed saved from the previous harvest. This is changing as the Indonesian government promotes hybrid varieties (widely used in Thailand and the Philippines) from which seed cannot be saved. Hybrid maize seed is more expensive and requires more high-cost inputs (irrigation, fertilisers and pesticides). Evidence indicates that, as with Green Revolution rice varieties, hybrid maize benefits richer farmers at the expense of the poor. More food may be available, but at prices that many cannot afford. Also, hybrid varieties need more chemical fertilizers and pesticides, thus creating environmental impacts, or rather worsening the impacts of the rice green revolution.

The proliferation of hybrid varieties creates an alarming dependency in terms of seed supply. Governments are increasingly relying on private seed companies to supply maize seed. A handful of multinational and national companies are now responsible for supplying hybrid seed for 25% of the total area of maize planted in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, the market is dominated by Monsanto (see table).


Company Market share Notes
PT Cargill
67% Established in 1988; undertakes production of its hybrids with the national seed centre PT Sang Hyang Seri. Now wholly owned by Monsanto.
PT Pioneer
25% Established in 1988; uses the national seed centre PT Pertani as its main seed distributor
Bright Indonesia
Seed Industry
8% Established in 1983 as a joint venture between Charoen Pokphand of Thailand (80%) and Central Pertiwi Indonesia (20%)
PT Monagro
Kimia (Monsanto)
Not known Wholly owned by Monsanto, producing the popular herbicides and pesticides: Polaris, Roundup and Spark. Plans to scale up its hybrid maize production by 2001.


An example of the collaboration between the worlds of academia and agribusiness is manifested in a national seminar on seed culture held in Yogyakarta on October 9th. Entitled 'Opportunities, prospects and barriers to the seed industry in improving the nation's agriculture', the meeting was jointly organised by the agribusiness company PT Bisi, Forum Benih (the Germplasm Forum) and Gadja Mada University. Speakers included prominent academics from the agricultural faculties of several leading universities.

Two representatives from Monsanto currently sit on the steering committee of a new Asian Development Bank-supported network aimed at maize improvement: the Asian Maize Biotechnology Network (AMBIONET). This network is an offspring of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT ), a Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research based in Mexico, which has been developing and promoting high yield hybrid maize since the 1980s.

The concentration of control of the seed market in the hands of a few multinational corporations will be consolidated through the World Trade Organisation (WTO) mainly through the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. This requires member countries to provide intellectual property rights protection for plant varieties either through patents or some kind of legislation. Under such rules, the traditional right of farmers to save seed could be prevented. Countries including Indonesia are under pressure to comply with TRIPS by January 1, 2000 or face retaliation through WTO trade sanctions. In fact, to comply with TRIPs, Indonesia changed its patent law. The previous patent law of 1986 prohibits patents for plants and animal varieties. Such provision was eliminated in the new patent law of 1997.

Monsanto is not only a leading producer of hybrid maize seed, it is one of the pioneers of genetically modified crops – including maize – and holds many of the key patents on these. Two kinds of GM-maize are poised to enter the Southeast Asian market. 'Bt corn' contains a gene for an insect-killing toxin isolated from the soil microbe Bacillus thuringiensis. Maize borers feeding on these plants die from the toxin produced by the plant. Monsanto's 'Roundup Ready' maize contains a gene which makes it resistant to a herbicide also produced by Monsanto.

So far, public opposition has apparently prevented permission for field trials of GM-maize in the Philippines and Thailand. Indonesia is a different story. Monsanto and Pioneer have already carried out limited field tests in Indonesia with consent from the Department of Agriculture. Field tests have been conducted for five crops : bt cotton, herbicide tolerant cotton, bt corn, herbicide tolerant corn, and herbicide tolerant soyabean. The whereabouts of the field tests are not known.

The Department of Agriculture has established a Biosafety Commission which issues guidelines for conducting research and the release and importation of biotechnology products and has set up a Biotech Research station near Bogor, West Java. Under Indonesia's biosafety guidelines, there is no need to issue any notification of field tests or the release of GMOs. Hence the Indonesian public is completely in the dark about the existence of such tests and possible hazards and risks involved, making it easier for companies to use the country as a vast experimental field station.

According to the Pesticide Action Network, PAN Indonesia, Minister of Agriculture Dr Soleh Solahuddin has stated that USA trials show transgenic maize is environmentally safe – ignoring the concerns of US scientists who are reported to have found adverse effects on wildlife. He blandly repeats manufacturers' claims that GM-crops are 'environmentally friendly' since they reduce the need for pesticides. The minister also promises that the GM-seeds will be widely available at a low price, thus generating more profits for farmers than local varieties. Since seed companies like Monsanto are not charitable institutions and the Indonesian economy is still in a parlous state it is difficult to see how this could be achieved. Meanwhile, Indonesian NGOs fear GM-crops and the monopolies of biotech giants will wreak environmental havoc, erode biodiversity and undermine farmers' autonomy and productive capacity.


New World Bank loan

The World Bank has announced a US$13 million loan plus US$ 5 million credit for a Decentralised Agricultural and Forestry Extension Project. The aim is to provide more agricultural and forestry extension workers by linking government extension services to research and training institutes, private sector entities, universities, non-government organisations, and farmers’ organisations. According to the Bank, there are currently about 38,000 agricultural and 6,000 forestry extension workers compared with 28 million farmers in Indonesia. Twenty very diverse areas have been selected: Yogya, NTT, N. Sumatra, South and SE Sulawesi in the first phase, followed by N. Sulawesi, S. Kalimantan, NTB, C. Java and Aceh. “The results of the project will teach project managers how to provide future support for different requirements”, said a Bank official.

One central feature is helping poor farmers to meet their needs through participatory approaches. Partnerships with the private sector is another. It seems unlikely that these two aims are compatible, given the relentless drive for profits behind agribusiness interests.

(Source: World Bank Press Release 1/9/99)


(Sources: PAN Press Release 1/9/99, 3/9/99; "Whose agenda? The corporate takeover of corn in SE Asia", BIOTHAI, GRAIN, MASIPAG & PAN Indonesia, August 1999.Copies of the report are available in English by email via PAN-Indonesia (Pesticide Action Network-Indonesia), Jl.Persada Raya #1, Menteng Dalam, Jakarta 10210, Indonesia Tel/Fax: (62-21) 829 65 45 Email: