In 2013 the world’s first genetically-modified sugarcane crop was approved for planting. This is a watershed moment in sugarcane biotechnology and appropriately enough it has happened in Indonesia, a region with a distinguished history in developing new cane varieties. Almost a century ago a high-yielding cane called POJ 2878 was released (named after the Proefstatien Oost Java breeding centre) and was soon taken up by the island’s planters, dramatically boosting Javanese sugar production.
The shift from hybrid breeding to genetic engineering in sugarcane raises two immediate questions. The first concerns the control of seed technology. The Indonesian case is interesting because the sugarcane has been genetically engineering under the auspices of the state, specifically PT Perkebunan Nusantara (a state-owned sugar milling conglomerate), the Indonesian Sugarcane Plantation Research Centre, and scientists from the State University of Jember in East Java. This is no doubt a response to the government’s agenda to become self-sufficient in staple foods, Indonesia being one of the biggest sugar importers in the world. A Deputy Agriculture Minister has said that: “Using the GM organism will increase our production more. That’s the only one solution we have.”
But corporate interests are not far away. The Indonesian experience is likely to be monitored closely by Raízen (a joint venture between Shell and Cosan, a Brazilian sugar miller) and Monsanto, which have stakes in the Centro de Tecnologia Canavieira (CTC) and CanaVialis, respectively. Both based in Brazil, these are the two biggest private-sector breeding stations in the world. According to the watchdog GMO Compass field trials for GM sugarcane have been held in Brazil, as well as other countries including Australia, Cuba, India and the USA. If it is widely taken up in Indonesia, this ‘success’ is likely to be cited as an important reason for regulators in other countries to licence the commercial cultivation of GM sugarcane too.
The second question about GM sugarcane relates to its utility. The variety approved in Indonesia has been developed for drought-resistance. Yet as the Union of Concerned Scientists has reminded us, this trait does not mean that plants can be grown with less water. Assessments of drought-resistant corn in the US showed that it does not offer improvements in water-use efficiency and only provided “modest protection against modest drought”. Traditional crop breeding techniques have been much more effective in maintaining yields during dry periods.
What is more commonly developed using genetic modification is herbicide tolerance, which allows crops to be sprayed with more powerful chemicals like glyphosate in order to kill off weeds. This has already been developed for GM sugar beets, which have been cultivated in North America since the 2000s. According to GRAIN, during the approval process for its Roundup Ready sugar beet in the USA, Monsanto successfully lobbied the Environmental Protection Agency to increase by 5,000% the glyphosate residues allowed on sugar beet roots. Roundup (glyphosate) is a toxic herbicide that presents serious risks to human health, even at low levels. It is notable, then, that herbicide-resistant cane varieties are also being assessed in Indonesia.
But the past experience of Indonesia also holds some warnings for proponents of GM technology. Previous plans, sponsored by Monsanto, to cultivate GM cotton in South Sulawesi had to be stopped after protests from farmers and civil society groups. A decade on, organisations like the Indonesian Centre for Environmental Law still suggest that the environmental safeguards around GM are too lax. And going right back to the 1920s, after the POJ 2878 showed great success in Java it was exported around the world, before its vitality began to degenerate and successor varieties were developed. As a method of increasing plant productivity and industry competitiveness, then, breakthrough seed technology can only offer at best a temporary benefit.