Indonesia: Deal on transgenic cotton seeds delayed

Strong public pressure and concern over  transgenic products have caused a postponement of an agreement between the government of Indonesia and Monsanto on the development of cotton seeds in South Sulawesi, according to a report in the Jakarta Post.

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 13 Sep 2000 -- Strong public pressure and concern over  transgenic products have caused a postponement of an agreement between the government of Indonesia and the American-based agrochemical and seed company Monsanto on the development of cotton seeds in South Sulawesi, according to a report in the Jakarta Post.  The report quoted State Minister of Environment, Sonny Keraf, as saying on 12 September that his personal disapproval of the project, along with pressure from non-governmental organizations, resulted in the Coordinating Minister for the Economy Rizal Ramli postponing, at the last minute, the agreement which was due to be signed on 15 September.

“At the last second, NGOs and I put pressure on Rizal Ramli to call it off,” Sonny told reporters on 12 September, according to the Jakarta Post report.

Sonny explained that health safety of transgenic crops and their effect on the environment was still a major concern and thus it would be advisable for agreements on the cultivation of such crops to be postponed.

“Besides, Indonesia is among the countries that signed the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety... We have to stick with the precautionary principles over transgenic matters,” Sony said, adding that there are still no regulations on transgenic products here.

According to Sonny, Rizal initially objected, arguing that the negotiations were already in the final stages.

“But I told him that it is better to call off the deal than to face problems in the future,” Sonny said.

Transgenic technology creates higher quality crops and stocks by inserting genes from other species.

These Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or biologically engineered products have genes inserted to protect the plant from pests or to resist a specific herbicide.

Despite assurances from scientists that the products are harmless, some doubts have been raised as to the safety of GMOs and their effect on health and the environment.

These concerns include how quickly biotech plants degrade in the soil and whether the plants can cross-pollinate with weeds or disrupt the ecosystem.

But Monsanto’s subsidiary, PT. Monagro Kimia, have been providing farmers in Bantaeng and Bulukumba regencies, South Sulawesi, with transgenic cotton seeds for the past five months.

The transgenic crops are now being harvested after it was planted in a 500-hectare area.

The products are exported and some are distributed in local markets.

In this regard, according to the Jakarta Post report, Sonny referred to the government regulations No. 51/1994 and No. 27/1999 and told reporters in his office in Jakarta: “This is also against procedure... The distribution of certain agricultural products has to go through an Environmental Impact Assessment (Amdal).” Therefore, he added, he will send a warning letter to  Monagro to stop production.

But Monagro’s Corporate Communications Manager Tri Soekirman, maintains that the company had already obtained permission earlier this year from the research and development department of the then ministry of forestry and plantation.

As for the suspended agreement, Tri said it was merely a statement of cooperation which reconfirmed Monsanto’s activities in Indonesia, producing seeds and herbicides.

“So, the delay doesn’t really effect us,” she told The  Jakarta Post over the telephone, adding that the cotton harvest will now be exported.

About the Amdal, Tri said that as far as the company is  concerned, the environmental assessment is for plantations above 1,000 hectares.

“We’ll still continue with our activities and still follow procedures,” she said.

Earlier, some South Sulawesi farmers who were brought to Jakarta, claimed that they were very satisfied with the yield  of transgenically modified Bt cotton or Bollgard cotton.

“It really benefits us. The yield is high so we earn more money and are able to repay bank loans faster,” said farmer M. Arsyad.

The cotton was said to have a yield of two to three tons per hectare compared to local cotton which has a yield of only 401 kilograms per hectare.

Ironically, Indonesia has a great need for cotton. Demand for cotton seeds reaches 1.5 million tons or an equivalent  of 500,000 tons of cotton fibers annually. Almost all are imported as domestic supply represents only one percent of the total need.-SUNS4739

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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