GM agriculture through the back door

Down to Earth No 49 May 2001

Indonesia has permitted the planting of genetically modified crops without public consultation and without adequate legal protection for farmers, consumers and the environment.

On March 15th, forty tons of genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds arrived from South Africa at Hasanuddin airport in Makassar, South Sulawesi. The seeds were trucked away under armed guard, to be sold to farmers in seven districts in the province. They were imported by PT Monagro Kimia the Indonesian subsidiary of US-based agro-chemical giant, Monsanto. Monsanto is the world's third biggest biotechnology company involved in genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It is also one of the three biggest seed and agro-chemical producers.

Local NGO activists opposing the imports tried to block the trucks from leaving the airport. They said the seed should be quarantined for detailed examination before distribution and accused the company of attempting to disguise what they were doing by using trucks marked "rice delivery". The NGOs also protested against the use of the Indonesian military (in this case military police) to guard the trucks.

In a letter to the Jakarta Post Monsanto said Indonesian quarantine officials had carried out a preclearance inspection in South Africa, and had complied with all procedures for import and quarantine. Monsanto staff told the newspaper that the imported seed was aimed at meeting the needs of the province's farmers. "There are at least 400,000 hectares of cotton plantations to be developed by the farmers here," said communications manager Tri Soekirman. The company was taking precautionary measures, but "people should not worry about the negative impact of the crops." He said there had been no complaints from the US, South Africa, China and Argentina, where the GM cotton had been grown, adding that Australia had grown GM cotton for the past five years.

The seed, developed by Monsanto, is known as NuCTN 35B, Bt. DP 5690B or "Bollgard" and "Bt" refers to the gene for an insect-killing toxin isolated from the soil microbe Bacillus thuringiensis and inserted into the cotton seed. Indonesia is a major importer of cotton, a raw material for its huge textile industry. 
(NGO statement Kecaman terhadap pengiriman benih transgenik, circulated via email by YLK Sulsel 15/Mar/01; Jakarta Post 17/Mar/01, 22/Mar/01)


Farmers in GM protest in Jakarta

Hundreds of farmers and NGO activists joined a demonstration led by the Indonesian Federation of Peasants' Unions (FSPI) to protests against GM crops in April. The protest was held outside the Department of Agriculture, then moved to PT Monagro's office. The farmers called for the licensing of GM cotton to be withdrawn and called for a boycott of GM seeds and GM products. They also threatened to destroy any GM products already distributed in the country. The protesters likened the introduction of GM agriculture to the green revolution of the 1970s and said it was another form of colonialism, which created new dependencies between farmers and the suppliers of agricultural inputs. (Kompas 17/Apr/01)



The GM seed was delivered five weeks after the Minister of Agriculture issued a decree (No. 107/2001) permitting limited sales of GM cotton crop from plantations in seven districts in South Sulawesi - Takalar, Gowa, Bantaeng, Bulukumba, Bone, Soppeng and Wajo. PT Monagro has already conducted field trials of GM cotton over a 500 hectare area in Bantaeng and Bulukumba districts. According to media and NGO reports, the harvested crop has already been sold on local and foreign markets. The sales were apparently conducted as if it was a perfectly standard crop. (See also DTE 43)

The February decree was issued on the quiet, without public consultation. Even other ministries appear to have been kept in the dark. Environment Minister Sonny Keraf said the decree was "trade politics". An editorial in the Jakarta Post characterised it as a sad case of when "business interests …prevail over environmental concerns".

A group of Indonesian NGOs - ICEL, Konphalindo, PAN, YKLI and YLK Sulawesi Selatan - are preparing to start legal proceedings to have the decree annulled. They say it was issued hastily, without consideration of the consequences of using transgenic products; it violated Indonesia's environmental law (23/1997) because no environmental impact assessment was conducted and because the public's right to information and to be involved in decision-making was not upheld. The decree allows for "limited" sales of the cotton, they point out, yet there is no restriction on the area which can be planted within the seven districts.

The NGOs are concerned that the decree will lead to one company holding the monopoly over seed and other inputs like fertiliser and pesticides. It could also undermine or destroy the achievements of existing people- and environment-centred farming systems like integrated pest management (IPM - see below) and create technological dependency among farmers.

They also point out that Monsanto's GM cotton is not necessarily the best seed type for cotton farmers as it does not deal with one of the main cotton pests found in Sulawesi and will therefore still require large amounts of pesticides. This had already become evident during the field trials, where the GM cotton succumbed to drought and insect attack. The seeds are over five times as expensive as the Kanesia 7 cotton seed, developed by Indonesia's Bureau for the Study of Tobacco and Fibrous Plants (Balittas), which, under IPM, achieves the same yield of 2-3 tons. Many farmers in South Sulawesi want to buy Kanesia 7 cotton, but find that only Monsanto's Bt cotton is available. This, argue the NGOs, violates law No. 12/1992 on Plant Cultivation which says farmers are free to choose which crops they want to grow.


South African NGO protest against seed exports

The GM cotton seeds delivered to South Sulawesi were imported by Monsanto from South Africa. SAFeAGE, (South African Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering) has organised a 'petition against military imposition of South African GM cotton in Indonesia'. 


In South Sulawesi it is clear that Bt cotton is being pushed by local government officials. As reported by NGOs, the Bupati (district head) of Bulukumba said he would "instruct" all his colleagues down to village heads on the benefits of Bt cotton for farmers. The head of the local plantations office said that the people of Bulukumba should be proud because they were a priority Bt cotton area and that extension workers should be reminded to recommend Bt cotton, not Kanesia 7.


Door to GM already open

An earlier agreement to permit the sale of GM cotton was cancelled by economics minister Rizal Ramli at the last minute in October 2000 after intense lobbying by NGOs and the intervention of environment minister Sonny Keraf. This time, the Department of Agriculture has avoided opposition by not publicising its intentions or informing anyone else in advance.

In fact the door to GM crops has already been wide open for some time with field trials of GM crops starting in 1999 or earlier. Other crops under field trials include Bt corn (maize), Roundup Ready Corn, RR cotton, RR Soybean (all produced by Monsanto) and Bt potato (produced by 3 research institutes including Michigan State University). According to ISAAA, the industry-funded International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, the Bt corn, RR soybean, corn and cotton are in the process of being approved. 

Monsanto and others have been able to start trials and then sell the product in Indonesia with relative ease because the legislation on biosafety and food safety is weak. Under the government's biosafety guidelines there is no need to issue any notification of field tests or the release of genetically engineered organisms (GMOs). A 1999 joint ministerial decree on genetically engineered products and food safety has been criticised for not including labelling and environmental impact assessment requirements. Environment minister Sonny Keraf says his office is giving priority to issuing a strengthened decree (due April or May this year) but how far he will be able to tighten the rules is questionable. Keraf, whose position in the Wahid cabinet is not strong, speaks out on this issue - as on others - as a lone voice in an otherwise business-focussed government. Academics attached to the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) and other institutes have been arguing that Indonesia must enhance its biotech industry if it is to compete with other countries in agribusiness.


Biotech trees

Another Monsanto subsidiary, Monfori Nusantara is developing "supertrees" for the forestry industry, which, it claims, could solve the country's timber supply shortage. Genetically identical teak, acacia and eucalyptus tree seedlings are being produced by tissue culture or cloning methods - a biotechnology technique different from genetic engineering in that the genetic make-up of the trees is not altered or "engineered". The aim is to produce "elite" trees, slash the maturing period and increase supplies to the wood-processing market - including the growing market for eco-labelled timber which has not been cut from natural forests. Monfori's $6.1 million tree factory in Parung, Bogor was set up in 1997 to produce ten million seedlings a year.

NGOs are concerned that biotech tree plantations will be even more susceptible to disease than ordinary tree monocultures - which have a poor survival rate in Indonesia. More fundamentally, forestry policy - including timber extraction - needs a total overhaul to address long-standing structural problems over forest ownership and access to forest resources by rural communities. Upping the supply of timber will benefit the very industry that is responsible for destroying the forests and ignores the crucial social and economic dimensions of forest management. Establishing commercial timber plantations - whatever the tree type - involves acquiring land and displacing rural communities. Monsanto's technical fix to the timber supply problem may mean more profits for the company, but it will also means more land rights violations and further marginalisation of rural peoples. GM trees - the next step up from cloning - are being trialled in some countries, including US, New Zealand and possibly China. Varieties currently being tested include fruit trees with pest resistance, trees with reduced lignin to make pulping easier for the paper industry, herbicide-resistant trees and ones which absorb carbon faster - for use as carbon "sinks". In Indonesia there have been rumours that GM trees are being developed, but there is no public information on this.

A report by the UK-based group, CornerHouse, highlights the social and environmental problems vast plantations of GM trees would cause, including displacement of people from their lands and "gene drift" to non-GM trees through pollination. (See CornerHouse Briefing 21, "Genetic Dialectic: the Biological Politics of Genetically Modified Trees.")(Bali Post 17/May/00;


Precautionary approach

Indonesian NGOs working on biosafety and GMOs are pushing their government to take a more precautionary approach on GM crops. They say they are not against GM crops as such, but oppose their introduction without adequate government regulations. The NGOs have called for a moratorium on testing or planting GM crops until adequate regulations to safeguard the environment and farmers' interests are in place and until the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety* (signed February 1999) has been ratified by the Indonesian government. They also argue that the public should be involved in decision-making on the issue. At present, there is no transparency - NGO requests to gain access to safety reports on cotton testing, for example, have been turned down.

Environment minister Sonny Keraf takes a similar line: "…we think that we have to stick to a precautionary principle", he said in February. "We don't object to the technology, but nobody can assure the safety of such crops, so we have to be careful…."

*For more on the Cartagena Protocol see article by Gurdal Singh Nijar, TWN:


Regional autonomy and the "open-arms" approach

The Sulawesi Bt cotton case shows what advocates of the precautionary approach are up against. The Bupatis of both districts in which the Bt cotton trials were conducted are keen to develop the crop further, believing that high yields and extra profits will result. They, and government supporters of GM crops, argue that there is no scientific reason why they should not plant more.



Monsanto subsidiary PT Monagro is also involved in the development of hybrid seed varieties, which are trialled and then sold to farmers. In December last year it was reported that a six-hectare trial of the C5 maize hybrid in the Rawa Sekip swamp transmigration site in Riau province, Sumatra, had been successful and would be introduced on a wider scale.

Although such hybrid varieties do not present the same potential risk to biodiversity as GM crops, the same issues of control over seeds and farmers' choice apply. Farmers cannot save seeds from the previous crop for the next planting with hybrid varieties, as they do using traditional seed varieties. The seed suppliers (in this case a multinational company) are therefore in a position of control, leaving farmers with reduced autonomy. Planting one variety over a wide area also increases the risk of disease, putting farmers in a more vulnerable position than if they were growing a range of different crops. 
(Riau Pos 13/Dec/00; for more background see DTE 43)


This open-armed approach is a worrying signal that GM agriculture could take hold quickly in Indonesia if decision-making is left in the hands of Bupatisand local parliaments who may not know about the potential risks of GMOs or who are susceptible to the sales talk of multinational biotech companies. Bantaeng Bupati Azikin Solthan says he hopes that, under regional autonomy, the decision-making over GM crops will rest with local governments. "If they really can increase the income of farmers and add to local government revenues, why not?" he said.

Under regional autonomy regulations issued in May 2000 (No 25/2000) the only reference to genetic engineering is in the section on investment (para 7, Clause 2, Chapter II). This says that central government retains the authority to issue and control investment permits for "strategic technology" companies whose "highly sophisticated" and "high risk" applications include weapons, nuclear technology and genetic engineering. Assuming that GM seeds are included under "seeds and seedlings" or "agricultural commodity varieties" again, central government is supposed to retain responsibility, regulating their export and import and setting standards for their release and withdrawal. (Chapter II, Clause 2, para 3, 1(b)). However, it remains to be seen how far district or provincial governments, who are implementing regional autonomy to suit local agendas, will adhere to these rules.

(Source: Jakarta Post 13,17, 24/Feb/01; Press release by ICEL, Konphalindo, PAN Indonesia, YLKI "Menolak Sk Mentan No.107/Kpts/KB?430/2/2001 tentang Pelepasan Secara Terbatas kapas Transgenik Bt DP 5690B sebagai Varietas unggul", 22/Feb/01; Pernyataan sikap 16 Organisasi rakyat Bulukumba: menolak keras masuknya kapas transgenik di Bulukumba 25/Feb/01; ISIS Press Release, 14/Feb/01; ISAAA website:;Kompas 7/Dec/00)