Transgenic technology draws controversy
By Hera Diani
JAKARTA (JP): From the era of Copernicus in the 16th century to Dolly the cloned sheep four centuries afterwards, innovations in science and technology have often been controversial.
One recent technological innovation currently sparking debate is transgenic technology.
Transgenic technology is a way to create "better" quality crops and livestock by inserting genes from other species.
These products are called Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or biologically engineered products. This technology attempts to improve crops by inserting genes into plants to make them distasteful to pests or to make them resistant to a specific herbicide.
The new technology is said to reduce the need for farmers to use toxic chemicals and results in healthier crops with improved quality and yield.
Scientists maintain that there is "no strict distinction" between the risks posed by these foods and plants modified by conventional practices.
"It's even better than conventional crossbreeding. The old technique is like mixing two different dictionaries together to find a single new word," said a senior scientist at Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) F.G. Winarno.
Winarno pointed out that the "old" technique of crossbreeding not only produced the desired characteristic from a plant but also the unwanted ones.
"But with transgenic technology, we simply cut the desired gene, glue it on the plant and get the characteristic we want," he explained, adding that this modern technique is accurate and efficient.
Despite assurances from scientists on GMO products, doubts have been raised about the safety of genetically modified foods and the long term effect on health and environment.
Among these concerns are how quickly a genetically modified plant degrades the soil, whether the plants can cross-pollinate with weeds and how do they interact with the ecosystem.
These concerns have prompted the European Union to mandate a ruling on labeling foods and food additives that are at least 1.0 percent genetically modified.
The policy aims to alert the public to even the marginal presence of GMOs in food and give consumers freedom of choice.
In Indonesia, according to the head of the research and development department in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Djoko Budianto, research on GMO crops has been conducted by many institutions.
Nevertheless, he says such products are not prevalent in the Indonesian market.
"The Ministry has yet to commercially release these products," he said, adding that neither the Ministry nor the National Seeds Institution has marketed transgenic crops or seeds.
The head of LIPI's molecular biology crops laboratory, Inez H.S. Loedin, said it has succeeded in introducing genes to a type of rice that make it resistant to certain pests.
"Besides rice, there is also research on corn, sweet potatoes, soybean, chili pepper, potato, coffee, cacao, sugarcane, forestry plants, and papaya," Inez said, adding that the genes inserted in these plants have resulted in varieties with higher tolerance to certain viruses, crop disease and even drought.
Despite government assertions, the Indonesian Consumers Organization (YLKI), the National Consortium for Nature and Forest Conservation and the Pesticide Action Network all claim that GMO products have already entered the Indonesian market.
Their opposition to the marketing of GMO products is based on the fact that consumers have not been informed of the nature of the products and they claim the products have not been fully proven to be benign.
"The effects aren't known yet but the products are already on the market and consumers have been given no information about them," a member of YLKI's board of directors, Arimbi H., charged.
She alleged that a conspiracy was behind the concealed export of GMO crops from the United States.
Arimbi claimed that the U.S. had a glut of GMO products, and with the current trend of shying away from such products and the labeling imposed in Europe, U.S. farmers were having difficulty finding markets.
Recent reports indicate that genetically modified corn, soybean and cotton varieties were planted on 24 million hectares across U.S. farms in 1999 alone.
Due to the tight control in the European market, these products are being imported here were control and checks on such products are inadequate.
The three groups claim that they have evidence of several genetically modified crops already imported into Indonesia.
However, distributors of the crops have refuted the allegations saying that their varieties are simple hybrids.
The government last week tried to bridge the gap between NGOs and scientists by bringing the issue before a seminar.
State Minister of Research and Technology and the chairman of the Board for Research and Application of Technology (BPPT) A.S. Hikam sent a clear message calling on all parties not to be trapped in an 'unproductive dichotomy of pros and cons'.
"The problem is not as simple as accepting or rejecting the technology. The problem is that these products and the technology have entered our country, and we should do something about it," he said, adding that the government should lead the way by issuing clear and strict regulations.
The regulations are also needed, Hikam said, to protect Indonesia's biodiversity as this country has an abundant source of biomaterials.
The law must regulate access to foreign researchers to national biomaterial centers, environmental protection, and protection for the right of intellectual properties along with the protection of consumers.
So far, such a law, at best, is still in the formulation stage. At the present time, only a joint ministerial decree on food and natural product safety touches on the issue of GMO products.