Indonesians Demand GMO Labeling

Indonesians Demand GMO Labeling

November 4, 2001

The controversy about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), just like
the technology itself, is still in its infancy. Most governments around
the world agree "the jury is still out" on the real long-term effects of
GMOs on people's health and the environment.

Housewife "Muryati", like many ordinary Indonesians, does not really
know what GMOs are all about.

She may have heard about them in passing, including the controversy
about possible health risks, but the scientific explanations about the
biotechnology's commercial use are above her. But Muryati believes
people like her have the right to know what they are putting into their

"Is it possible that the food we buy every morning in supermarkets are
GM foods, or maybe we have eaten GM food in fast-food restaurants. It's
sad to think that we don't know, and who will protect us?" she said.

Countries of the European Union, Australia, Hungary, Japan, Korea and
Switzerland have obliged labeling of genetically modified products. In
the United States, meanwhile, labeling is voluntary by the firms

And Indonesia has taken the same position as Brazil, Chile, the Czech
Republic, Malaysia, Russia and Saudi Arabia, which all plan to impose
the labeling.

They argue that labeling will enable consumers to make decisions on
whether to buy GM food in supermarkets and fast-food restaurants.

The problem is that the plans for the labeling are still in the

An organic activist with the Foundation for the Study of Technological
Development and Service (Elsppat), A. Waspo, expressed concern about
GMOs because there is little information about it, no labeling and no
clear rules to regulate the GMO-related sector.

"We may have consumed GM food but we are not aware of it; we cannot be
because there is no label to differentiate GM products from organic
ones. And if unexpected effects (of consuming GMO) occur in the long
term, we would have problems because there is no clear regulations about
who is responsible," he said, describing it as playing with people's

"I believe GM foods have penetrated the local food sector, especially GM
corn and soya beans, which are the basic ingredients of popular foods
like tempeh and tofu."

He also underlined the need to examine food donated by other countries
to detect GMOs, and to label the food accordingly.

"Fast-food firms and other companies in the food sector should also
include a statement, similar to the one used on cigarettes, like 'This
product contains GM ingredients and the long-term health effects are
unknown'," he said.

He said his Bogor-based foundation tried to encourage small farmers in
the area to plant organic vegetables, but the drawback was they required
a longer period to grow.

And non-governmental organizations here have urged the government to act
on the side of caution, and impose the labeling immediately.

A researcher at the Indonesian Consumer Foundation (YLKI), Yuliani S.
Andang, said consumers had the right to choose and the right to

"If we don't impose the labeling, it means we are violating the rights
of consumers and cheating them," she said.

According to Yuliani, many transgenic products, whether in the form of
crops or processed food, had flooded the country.

"We do not yet have any data on it, but we imported soybeans and corn
from the United States, where over 50 percent of soybeans are
transgenic, while the figure is 25 percent for corn," she said.

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that 68
percent of U.S. soybeans were genetically modified.

"And since the European Union doesn't want the products, we assume that
our country has been in the market," Yuliani asserted.

"It's related to the right of food safety. And especially for baby food,
we really don't recommend it," she added.

The executive director of the National Consortium for Nature and Forest
Conservation (Konphalindo), Tejo Wahyu Jatmiko, said that the issue of
labeling was still tentative due to the lack of definitive legal

The commercial application of GMO technology in Indonesia is currently
controlled by a 1999 decree jointly issued by the ministries of
Agriculture, Forestry, Food and Horticulture, and Health.

"But it's not clear who holds the greatest responsibility. We also
haven't ratified the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety which obliges
labeling. So this is a complicated issue," he said.

Tejo said there should be a moratorium on the commercial application of
transgenic technology before the government passes its planned law on
biosafety and food safety.

"Or else it will be like the recent case of South Sulawesi," he said,
referring to the issuance of a ministerial decree which allows for the
limited release of transgenic cotton in seven regencies in South

Some, however, like Inez H.S. Loedin, the head of the crops molecular
biology laboratory at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said that
mandatory labeling was not urgent.

"Even Singapore has yet to oblige it. And Japan just imposed it last
May," she said.

Inez agreed that consumers had the right to know about the products they
buy, but added there were many difficulties that should be considered
before imposing labeling.

"The problem is to determine the threshold of the GMO content in the
product. Europe set it at 1 percent while Japan at 5 percent. We have to
check first whether we have the capacity or equipment to set the
threshold," she said.

"And then we have to ask the United States, as a soybean exporter, to
separate the GMO and non-GMO products. That will add another cost."

It's a cost measured in dollars and cents and rupiah, but, to consumers
like Muryati, peace of mind, in knowing about what they and their
families are putting into their bodies, does not carry a price.

Hera Diani and Maria Endah Hulupi

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