Mon, 18 Sep 2000

Local research needed for transgenic plants

State Minister for Environment Sonny Keraf last week reported that the agreement between the government and American-based agrochemical and seed company Monsanto on the agribusiness project in South Sulawesi using transgenic cotton seeds had been delayed. Alex Hartana, head of the Center for Life Science Studies of the Bogor-Based Plant Biology Laboratory, and head of the Genetic Laboratory, Department of Biology, of the Science and Mathematics School of the Bogor Agriculture Institute reminds of the need for caution in such agreements:

Question: What is your comment on the controversial transgenic cotton plantation project in South Sulawesi?

Answer: Indonesians are typically reckless. We tend to always chase something we don't really understand. In the case of the genetically-engineered cotton, there should have been people who really understood the basics about biology and biotechnology involved in the project licensing.

Indonesia could have been only a part of a project for a certain party, say a developed nation. I'm glad Minister Sonny Keraf has reacted positively.

Biotech aims to provide more combinations or recombinations. This began a long time ago. But we have to be careful in using the term. It's difficult to say whether the result is good, whether it's safe or not. There must be prior research (before its adoption), particularly regarding genetically-modified plants.

Q: What kind of research?

A: Regarding cotton in Sulawesi, for instance, I am surprised that the company (PT Monagro Kimia, a subsidiary of Monsanto), has been providing farmers there with transgenic cotton seeds for (five) months and that the cotton has already been planted in some areas.

There should have been research beforehand, for example in relation to the habitat. Some local farmers have insisted that the cotton would not be harmful, "it's not to be eaten anyway." They do not know much. It's not about being edible or not. There's also the misleading statement that the plants don't need any insecticides and are therefore environmentally friendly.

The plants have been genetically mutated to be pest resistant, meaning that the pests will cease eating the plants ... The predators (of the pest) may also vanish. There must be a research for something like this.

There could have been prior research somewhere else, but different locations have different habitats and environments, thus the need for research in the locality.

Q: Is there any regulation regarding this issue?

A: With or without regulations, there's always codes of conduct and ethics.

A student of mine pursuing his doctorate program for his research on rice species must set up special greenhouses in several steps before the rice is really planted in a real paddy field.

But there is a dilemma here. We cannot immediately say yes or no to transgenics. We have to be careful and not rush. The dilemma is, can a research be held transparently here? Will the company, in this case Monsanto, be willing to delay its business?

Q: What else is important?

A: We have to really understand biotechnology. In this case, we can't expect this of the investment coordinating board, but it would be helpful if those dealing with investment licensing understand what the business will be about.

Sometimes we know too late that we have been fooled. We're told that the same product or commodity has been licensed in other countries ... Is that right? We have to ask for evidence. We know that controls in other nations are better.

Don't seek for instant benefits. But then we get to suffer.

Q: It seems there's always controversy in biotechnology...

A: Yes, this relates to public awareness. The problem is that people in other countries, say in Europe, are already developed in thinking. Anything which is genetically modified is labeled, so they can choose.

Everything is also studied first. They have good control. But we see different conditions in Indonesia, we even see discarded things are circulated here...

Q: Most agribusinesses argue that genetic engineering is needed as a solution to the growing world population while conventional farming practices on the same farming plots won't yield enough.

A: That's correct. In addition, biodiversity is very good. The problem is that such solutions use bacterial genes. So people have to be cautious. We have to know the possible effect in the long term. We also need to know the process and procedures, whether it is really safe or not. (I. Christianto)