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Indonesia: Feeding the Need

In Indonesia, farmers look to biotech crops to feed a growing population

With a population of over 240 million increasing at a rate of more than 1.4 percent per year, Indonesia is looking to boost agricultural production to avoid food scarcity. The urgency of boosting food production has been heightened in recent years by a series of both floods and droughts that have reduced yields of rice, the staple food of Indonesia. In response, the largest organization representing farmers in Indonesia, Kontak Tani Nelayan Andalan (KTNA), has issued a call for speeding the implementation of agricultural biotechnology to help offset a changing climate’s effect on crops.

KTNA’s current chair, Winarno Tohir, has warned that if farmers aren’t given the tools to improve yield, Indonesia will become a net importer of most agricultural crops. The group calls for accelerated movement to drought-, flood- and pest-resistant varieties. Although Indonesia has been slow to adopt agricultural biotechnology, recent trends suggest that attitudes are shifting.

Since the formation of the National Genetically Modified Product Biosafety Commission (KKHPRG) in 2010, steps have been taken toward field-testing genetically modified crops. A growing preference for locally made tempeh and tofu has expanded the market for soybeans, but the country meets that demand mainly by imports. However, use of herbicide-tolerant soybeans is expected to boost domestic production. Likewise, drought-tolerant sugarcane—developed in 2013 by the state plantation PT Perkebunan Nusantara, the Indonesian Sugarcane Plantation Research Center and the State University of Jember in East Java—is currently in field-testing.

Indonesia also has active research programs developing crops such as stem-borer-resistant rice, rot-disease-resistant potato and virus-resistant tomato. There is a widening acceptance of crops modified to better adapt to the changing environment, but even those advocating its implementation temper enthusiasm with a call for assurances that farmers will benefit.

A frequent speaker on issues of food security in Indonesia, Masyhuri, professor of agribusiness and agricultural economics at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, says that while the pros and cons of genetically modified crops are still being debated, the majority of people, including farmers, is simply not aware of them. Masyhuri, who heads the university’s Center for World Trade Studies, sees a role for agricultural extension agents in educating rural farmers and delivering advanced technology to help them gain access to world markets for their products. He says organized farm groups should have a voice in deciding how to stay viable and increase production. “Farmers can adopt biotechnology as long as there are proofs that the biotechnology has benefit to farmers in increased production and income,” he says.

Image credit: © Supri/Reuters/Corbis

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