Court action on Monsanto's GM cotton gets underway

Down to Earth No 50 August 2001

Indonesian NGOs objecting to a government decree allowing the planting of Monsanto's GM cotton are taking the agriculture minister to court in an attempt to have the decree annulled.

The NGO Coalition for Biosafety and Food Safety has launched a court action to annul Decree No. 107/2001 which allows the limited release of genetically modified cotton in South Sulawesi province. The NGOs argue that the decree was hastily issued by agriculture minister Bungaran Saragih without properly considering the possible consequences of introducing the crop. The decree also went against the "precautionary principle" and failed to consider advice and recommendations from the environment ministry, the local administration, NGOs and experts in the field. The Coalition's lawyers said the decree was issued by the minister as a way of legitimising past violations by the seed distributors, PT Monagro Kimia.

Only days after the decree was announced on February 7th this year, a consignment of 40 tonnes of the GM cotton seeds arrived in South Sulawesi from South Africa. The seeds were driven under armed guard from the airport in Makassar in trucks marked 'rice delivery'. (See DTE 49.)

The US-based agro-chemical company Monsanto - the world's second biggest seed-producer - produces the genetically engineered cotton variety Bt DP 5690B under the trade name NuCOTN 35B (Bollgard). Cotton and other crops have been distributed by Monsanto's Indonesian subsidiary PT Monagro since 1998 for what they claimed were "trials." According to the NGOs, these crops were actually grown for commercial purposes "as may be deduced from the fact that there were 868 growers involved who bought the seeds and sold the crops back to Monagro to be exported or distributed in local markets." The cotton seeds are being grown in seven districts of South Sulawesi - Takalar, Gowa, Bantaeng, Bulukumba, Bone, Soppeng and Wajo.

The coalition of 72 NGOs from across Indonesia is being represented in the case by ICEL, YLKI, Konphalindo, Biotani Indonesia, YLKSS and LPPM.

At the first hearing of the case at Jakarta's state administrative court on June 21st, Monsanto's lawyers requested that the company be added as defendants, arguing that the case could directly affect the company's interests and because it alluded to the company's "good name". Outside the court, activists from PAN Indonesia and Konphalindo read out statements, held up banners and posters and distributed leaflets calling for a moratorium on GM crops.

The NGOs also argue that there is no adequate legislation to protect public and environmental interests from the potential dangers of GM crops. They say the environmental risks - such as the impact of the crop on non-target insect populations, the likelihood of gene 'drift' from GM to non-GM plants and the development of resistance among target pests - must be analysed.

The NGOs say that the decree contradicts the law on environmental impact assessment. At the case's opening day on June 21st, Monagro's lawyer said the company was not obliged to conduct an environmental impact analysis because it was not the promoter of the project, but only the supplier. He also said the total area was only 500 hectares, whereas the minimum area requiring an EIA is 5,000 ha. Other reports say that the area under GM cotton in Bulukumba district alone is over 1,500 hectares with another 1,500 ha planned.

Pests attack GM cotton in Sulawesi

Just as the court action was getting underway in Jakarta, the GM cotton recommended to local farmers by the local authorities was being attacked by pests. According to a report in the Jakarta Post hundreds of hectares of GM cotton fields in Bulukumba district had been destroyed by the pests by late June. These were identified as Helicoverpa armigera and Spodoptera. Monagro said the attack was nothing to worry about as the pests - the larvae - only ate the leaves and would not affect cotton production. According to the NGO Coalition, however, Helicoverpa armigera attacks the cotton fruit. PT Monagro championed its GM cotton seed for its resistance to this pest.

In another report, Monagro spokesman Wahidin Alaudin was quoted as saying that the cotton was guaranteed as resistant to the boll-attacking pestHeliotis.

Farmers growing the cotton were reported to be angry about the pest attack, as they had been told by the suppliers that the seed variety was resistant to all kinds of pests. (Jakarta Post 22, 29/Jun/01; NGO Coalition for Biosafety and Food Safety Press Release, 21/Jun/01; Tempo 19/Jun/01)

US wants APEC biotech forum

The United States submitted proposals for a biotechnology dialogue group within the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum at a 2-day meeting of the region's trade ministers in June. APEC already has a task force that deals with issues related to biotechnology, but the US wants to bring the matter to a higher political level among APEC members. Washington also wants to take the lead in creating an international biotechnology standard.

US and other multinational companies are using their considerable economic clout to put pressure on Asian countries to accept GM seeds, but some countries are worried that this may harm markets for their produce in countries - like in Europe - where consumers prefer non-GM produce.

(Kyodo Newswire 6/Jun/01: Far Eastern Economic Review 14/Jun/01)

Biotech centre for Riau island?

A plan to turn Galang Island in Riau province's free-trade zone into a biotechnology research centre, where experts can sit together and develop biotechnology research, was announced by the head of Batam Industrial Development Authority, Ismeth Abdullah in June. A Japanese investor, BAYU Pharmaceutical Co. Ltds, has given a commitment to the project, according to Ismeth, and vice-president Megawati Soekarnoputri supports the plan. (Jakarta Post 29/Jun/01)