Mon, 12 Jun 2000

Hira: Foodstuffs with GMOs need labeling

JAKARTA (JP): Environmentalists have called for rules to enable consumers to make informed choices when purchasing genetically modified foodstuffs.

Hira Djamtani of the National Consortium for Nature and Forest Conservation said there is now no way that consumers could tell which foodstuffs contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs), given that there were no rules on labeling of such foodstuff.

"We predict GMO products have filtered in through the import of soybeans and corn from the United States," said Hira, a member on the consortium's board of trustees, in a discussion on food safety at an Environment Exhibition on Saturday.

Given that 30 percent of soybean production and 50 percent of corn production in the United States are transgenic, the imported commodities are likely to contain GMOs, Hira said.

Transgenic technology is a way to create higher quality crops and stocks by inserting genes from other species.

Hira cited soybeans injected with a certain kind of virus to make them resistant to herbicides.

Doubts have been raised on the safety of genetically modified foodstuffs on human health, despite assurances from scientists that the products are safe.

Fears of negative effects have forced the European Union to mandate a ruling on labeling for foods and food additives that contain at least 1 percent GMOs.

The policy aims to alert consumers to the even marginal presence of GMOs in food and gives them freedom of choice, reports said.

Indonesian Consumers Agency chairwoman, Indah Sukmaningsih, said in the talks that Indonesian consumers "should be involved in the decision of the kind of food to import."

"The public should not be forced to consume certain kinds of products," she said. Indah added that the government should stimulate the role of consumers as evaluators and informants on the kinds of food best for them.

Hira said her organization has sent letters to the ministries in charge of the environment, health, agriculture, forestry and the Ministry of Industry and Trade questioning the extent of GMO- containing products in the country .

So far, she said, only the Ministry of Health and the Office of the State Minister of Environment have responded, saying they could not provide an answer.

PT Nestle Indonesia and instant noodles and seasoning producer PT Indofood Sukses Makmur were invited to the one-day talks but did not attend.

Hira pointed out the possibility of GMO-enhancing toxins in certain kinds of plants, such as potatoes, which contain a natural poison. Modified food could contain allergens, she said, and there were fears of such foods making the human body immune to antibiotics.

"We cannot know for sure how a genetically modified product turns out," Hira said.

She cited the failure of a genetically modified tomato in the United States which was meant to be immune to cold, but had a very thin skin, making it impossible to transport.

The Indonesian Institute of Sciences had said earlier that transgenic technology would help to overcome food problems in the country, while its negative effects have yet to be proven.

Hira said that even science could not prove that transgenic foodstuffs are entirely safe.

"It is a risk that we have to look out for and overcome," she said. But, she added, this did not mean that research on transgenic technology should stop. (10)