Fri, 15 Sep 2000

Monagro goes ahead with plan on transgenic cotton

JAKARTA (JP): PT Monagro Kimia said it would go ahead with its plan to sell transgenic cotton seeds in South Sulawesi despite the suspension of a cooperation agreement with the government.

PT Monagro Kimia spokeswoman Tri Sukirman said the suspension had no effect on the company's plan to supply cotton seeds to farmers' plantations in the province.

Tri acknowledged the company needed approval from the government to sell the transgenic cotton seeds because the existing permit was only for the pilot project for the development of transgenic cotton in the country.

"But we're confident we will obtain final approval despite the delay, because it (the delay) is irrelevant to our current activities," Tri told reporters following a teleconference with cotton farmers in South Sulawesi.

Coordinating Minister for the Economy Rizal Ramli decided on Tuesday to delay the signing of a cooperation agreement with Monagro's parent company, the American-based agrochemical and seed company Monsanto, due to public protests.

According to Tri, the agreement would only be about Monagro's commitment to investing in Indonesia.

"We are already committed to investing here, so the delay does not matter at all," she told reporters.

State Minister of the Environment Sonny Keraf admitted that his personal disapproval along with pressure from non- governmental organizations had resulted in Rizal postponing, at the last minute, the agreement, which was due to be signed last Friday.

Sonny had said that health concerns over transgenic crops and their effects on the environment was still a major concern to be considered.

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

Called Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) or biologically engineered products, these crops can better withstand pests and specific herbicides.

Although scientists have assured people over the safety of the produce, doubts remain about the crops' effects on health and the environment.

Tri said the company had already tested the cotton seeds with local farmers in South Sulawesi with satisfying results.

The company said it had been testing the seeds on cotton plantations in the regencies of Bantaeng and Bulukumba for five months.

"But we've been here in Indonesia for three to fours years for preliminary tests on the transgenic seeds," she added.

Back then, she said, the company had tested the seeds in glass houses, followed by isolated farm land, before finally testing on real plantations.

Tri said that Monsanto had already built a factory in Tangerang to process the transgenic cotton seeds, which Monagro would import from the United States.

However, she declined to state how much the company had invested here.

"The delayed agreement with the government also covered our expansion plans for our Tangerang factory," she added.

Tri said the company planned to expand its business to providing corn and soybean seeds in several regions in Indonesia.

With the increased fertility of these seeds, she said, local cotton production would rise, which would reduce Indonesia's dependency on imported cotton.

Data from the company show that Indonesia spends some Rp 9 trillion (US$1 billion) on imported around 500,000 tons of cotton fiber each year, from the United States and Australia.

Cotton is the main raw material for Indonesia's giant textile industry.

"It (the saving) is worth considering, but more importantly, farmers have an opportunity to raise their income," she added.

During the teleconference, farmers from Bantaeng expressed their wish to continue using the transgenic cotton seeds.

Head of South Sulawesi's plantation office Makrasan said that with transgenic cotton seeds, farmers could harvest an average of three tons of cotton per hectare as compared to only 500 kilograms per hectare using normal seeds.

Although the cost of transgenic cotton seeds per kilogram was 40 times higher than normal seeds, farmers were also saving money on expensive pesticide, he explained. (bkm)