Whose agenda? The corporate takeover of corn in SE Asia

by Biothai, GRAIN, MASIPAG and PAN Indonesia | 25 Aug 1999

Whose agenda? The corporate takeover of corn in SE Asia


August 1999


Bt corn, a product of genetic modification, was due to be tested for the first time on Philippine soil in June 1999. The country’s National Committee on Biosafety had approved the 30-day public notice for testing its efficacy against the corn borer. But public opposition has so far prevented the tests from going ahead. An important battle is underway, and for once local government is siding with the public. Local officials have expressed "grave concern over the … field release of genetically-engineered corn"1, temporarily calling a halt to field testing in their area of jurisdiction.

They recognise that genetically-modified (GM) crops present a huge threat to food security and agricultural sustainability in Southeast Asia. They see the potential for these crops to wreak environmental havoc, destroy ecological balance, erode biodiversity and undermine farmers’ autonomy and productive capacity. The Philippine government's proposal to allow 100% foreign ownership of prime agricultural lands to be used for research and development (R&D) and production further exacerbates these threats. Farmers fear being trapped into a form of industrial slavery through the introduction of GM crops. As one farmer declared in a dialogue on the planned release of Bt corn in Bay, Philippines, "the shift from the chemical, conventional farming system to the diversified integrated farming is the single determining factor for our self-sufficiency. If the government can understand this, our country as a whole would benefit from it."

The way things are going, it may not be long before products of genetic engineering reach farmers’ fields in Asia. In Thailand, Monsanto is now conducting field tests on Bt corn and both Pioneer and Monsanto are conducting tests on Bt cotton. Monsanto and Pioneer have already carried out limited field tests of Bt corn in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture in Indonesia. And Monsanto is bent on field testing its Bt corn in the Philippines later this year despite growing opposition from the public.

After rice, corn is perhaps Southeast Asia’s most important crop. It is also one of industry’s most profitable crops. Given the biotech industry’s relentless pursuit of new territories and markets, what is corn’s future here? Will the biotech giants succeed in turning Asia’s rich patchwork of rice paddies into a golden sea of corn reminiscent of the US’s Great Plains or can corn remain an integral part of the biodiverse farming systems of local farmers?


Corn was first domesticated in Mexico for use as food as early as 5000 BC, where it soon became the cornerstone of agriculture and was called "the golden crop." The crop was unknown outside the New World until 16th-century explorers brought seed grains back to Europe and Africa. Corn reached Southeast Asia in the mid-1500s and became a well-established crop in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand by the 1600s. According to some accounts, corn reached the Philippines from the west before Magellan reached the islands from the east in 1521. Since then, corn has became the most widely planted cereal after rice and has evolved into one of the economically important grains in Asia. The region has become an important secondary center of diversity for the crop, thanks to centuries of work by local farmers adapting the crop to local conditions.

Corn is a subsistence crop in many parts of Asia and is considered a staple crop next to rice. Some 12 million Filipinos, mostly indigenous communities and farmers in the Visayas and Mindanao, consume 22% of the total corn produced2. In Indonesia more than 80% of corn produced is consumed as a primary staple food for at least major parts of the year. This is especially true in Central Java, where white corn serves as a staple to rural poor during "paceklik" or "hungry season" before the main rice harvest. Small farmers tend to intercrop corn with other crops such as groundnut, mungbean, cowpea, soybean, other pulses, cassava, sweet potatoes or vegetables.

In most Asian countries, the majority of corn is grown for human consumption, but the strong growth in the commercial production of livestock has significantly increased the demand for feed grains in recent years. In the Philippines and Thailand, the vast majority of the corn produced now goes into feed production, a shift fuelled by the increase in meat and dairy product consumption characterised by the "Westernisation" of Asian diets.

Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines are the main corn producers in Southeast Asia, producing 10, 5 and 3.8 million tons respectively in 1998. But these top producers are still net importers of corn. Asia accounts for some 60% of global corn imports, with the United States contributing about 80% of total exports. The rapid increase in demand for feed corn has contributed to an increased reliance on imports.

Down on the farm

Farmers continue to play a vital role in the production of a diverse range of corn varieties in the field. Almost 40% of the corn area in Southeast Asia is still planted to farmers’ varieties (Table 1). Breeders from the public and private sector still regularly visit farmers' field in search of new breeding materials3. The main actors in the public sector are both national and international (see box).

Table 1. Corn varieties grown on the farm, 1997.

Corn area

Farmers' varieties

Improved varieties (as % corn area)


(000 ha)

(% corn area)






































Source: World Maize Facts and Trends 1997/98, CIMMYT, March 1999 and FAO Agricultural Production Data, updated 21 June 1999.

Beyond farmers’ fields: public sector breeding

Mexico’s International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) has had a huge influence on corn production in Southeast Asia. CIMMYT is one of 16 international agricultural research centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. Its research mandate covers corn, wheat, triticale, and barley in tropical and sub-tropical countries.

CIMMYT’s strategy for corn improvement is to supply national agricultural research centres (NARS) and private companies with germplasm for use in developing hybrids and open-pollinated varieties (OPVs). It’s germplasm has spread far and wide. In Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, more than 80% of the area planted to public materials and more than half of the area planted to private materials contain CIMMYT-derived germplasm. In Latin America, 75% of hybrids marketed by private companies contain CIMMYT germplasm.

A recent study in South Western China traced CIMMYT-derived germplasm to 43% of the total corn area, 73% of the total local releases and more than 87% of modern varieties. Despite the wide spread of these "improved" varieties, there had been limited benefit to resource-poor farmers noted, especially women, in marginal rainfed areas. Furthermore, the wide introduction of a limited number of modern varieties had depleted local corn diversity.

In the 1960s and 1970s, CIMMYT supplied germplasm mainly for the development of OPVs. In the 1980s, it began to shift its emphasis towards hybrid corn, a move which has proved controversial even among CIMMYT’s corn breeders. CIMMYT is now experiencing another shift: towards biotechnology and collaboration with the private sector. In South and Southeast Asia and in China, CIMMYT is already playing a facilitative role in developing and improving private-public sector partnerships. With support from the Asian Development Bank, CIMMYT has established a new biotechnology network, the Asian Maize Biotechnology Network (AMBIONET) aimed at corn improvement mainly using high-tech marker-assisted selection and breeding. Two representatives from Monsanto currently sit on its steering committee.

In addition to germplasm development, CIMMYT is also working on the development of appropriate biosafety measures for testing transgenic corn in developing countries. It aims to train scientists and biosafety officials from countries that wish to deploy transgenic corn. CIMMYT expects collaboration with the private sector to increase. "We're now in almost weekly discussions with one company or another," says David Hoisington, Director of CIMMYT’s Applied Biotechnology Center. "We feel the private sector has a substantial amount to offer." With its wealth of germplasm and extensive network with developing country NARS, CIMMYT is offering a great deal in return.

In the national arena, the NARS in the Philippines and Thailand are particularly strong, with 94% and 24% of their corn areas respectively planted to improved materials from the public sector and only 4% and 8% from private sector materials. In the Philippines, as early as the 1950s, the University of the Philippines were already producing hybrids. In the late 1960s, work on downy mildew resistance and other diseases was intensified. These breeding materials have been widely used throughout the region. For example, Thailand’s downy mildew-resistant OPV, Suman-1, still occupies a sizeable area in the country.

Main Sources: People and Partnerships:Medium-Term Plan of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) 2000-2002+; Yiching Song (1998), New Seed in Old China: Impact of CIMMYT Collaborative Programme on Maize Breeding in South Western China, Wagenigen,. Costales, A. (1993): Technological potentials and constraints in the Philippine maize feed industry. ASAP Pub.No. 2.03.

Open-pollinated varieties (OPVs) continue to be widely planted since they are cheap and farmers are able to save seeds for the next planting and exchange them with neighbouring farmers. In Indonesia, the seed replacement rate is a low 4% (although this is said to be changing with the government’s promotion of hybrids)4 and almost 85% of corn farmers in Cambodia still rely on farmer-saved seeds5.

Hybrid seeds, on the other hand, need to be purchased every planting season, since second generation seeds demonstrate at least a 30% reduction in yield6. And they don’t come cheap. In Thailand, hybrid seed costs more than 7 times that of OPVs (Table 2). Double cross and three-way cross hybrids are more commonly used in the region. These types have lower yields but are much cheaper than the single-cross hybrids used in developed countries. In Thailand, single cross hybrids cost 27-30 times the grain price7.

Table 2. Seed price versus grain price, 1997

Seed to grain price ratio

Ratio of the price of most


Most popular Hybrid

Commercial OPV

popular hybrid to the price of commercial OPV





























Source: World Maize Facts and Trends 1997/98, CIMMYT, March 1999

Hybrids tend to be designed for large-scale monoculture in rich agricultural areas. This is where they thrive and demonstrate their yield advantage. But most small farmers live in less fertile, marginal areas and rely on diverse, intercropping farming methods. In most cases, hybrids are too expensive, do not meet their needs and do not thrive on their farms because of the seeds’ reduced adaptability and high input cost8. In Indonesia, diverse farming systems account for 69% of the total corn area9. In the Philippines, more than 50% of corn is grown in the uplands where irrigation is totally lacking, and in such areas hybrids are proving to be unprofitable.10 Given the less-than-ideal production conditions found in many developing countries, hybrids are rarely profitable11, even if they show some yield superiority over improved OPVs in certain environments12.

Table 3. Corn seed types differentiated

Farmer's variety

Improved OPV


Seed cost compared to commercial OPV (% OPV) 0-30% 100% 120-380%
Seed yield (relative to OPV) 100% 100% 50-80%
Seed production cost Low Low High
Seed production technology and management required Low Low High
Seed replacement 3 years or more 3 years or more Every planting
Grain yield in comparison to OPV (under favorable growing conditions) 70-100% 100% 105-130%
Genetic base Broad Broad Narrow
Stability and adaptability Relatively more stable and adaptable to a wide range of environments Relatively more stable and adaptable to a wide range of environments Good performance in certain areas only and less adaptable
Seed supply and distribution Allows seed saving Allows seed saving External seed sourcing and distribution system (from seed cos.)

Nevertheless, many traditional cultivated varieties of corn have already been replaced by modern varieties in many areas in Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand13. In Vietnam, numerous glutinous corn varieties important for human consumption and food security have already disappeared. Meanwhile, in Indonesia there are fears over the rapid disappearance of local varieties due to current government thrusts to promote new high yielding varieties14.

Despite their limited use in many parts of the region, increased efforts both by the government and the private sector will push more hybrid seeds into farmers' fields in the future. Hybrids occupied 60% of the corn area in Thailand in 1997 and this figure is expected to increase up to 70-75% by 200015. In Vietnam, corn area is expected to double in the near future with 80-90% planted to hybrids16. The rapid diffusion of corn hybrids continues to threaten the existence of many traditional OPVs and indigenous strains. According to one Thai seed company, only 10 to 15 corn hybrids are currently being sold in Southeast Asia17.

Multinationals muscling in

A further threat caused by the proliferation of hybrid materials comes from the dependency they create in terms of seed supply. Governments are relying more and more on private seed companies to supply corn seed. A handful of multinational and national companies operating in the region are now responsible for supplying hybrid seed for 25% of the total corn area. Only three companies (Cargill, Pioneer and CP-DeKalb) control almost 70% of the Asian seed market. The recent acquisition of DeKalb and Cargill Seeds International by Monsanto means that there are really only two competitors. Novartis, meanwhile, is gearing up its corn seed business in the region and is seeking tie-ups with local companies such as Cornworld in the Philippines.

What is equally alarming is the rapid consolidation among chemical companies, biotechnology firms and seed suppliers at one end of the spectrum and the growing alliances with food handlers and processors at the other. This phenomenon, known as "vertical integration," should more appropriately be called "vertical disintegration" in terms of its impact on farmers and food production. DuPont/Pioneer is now directly involved in providing inputs and specific seed varieties and buying the harvest back to be sold to grain processors. Monsanto has arrangements with Cargill to supply and market Monsanto-designed seeds to farmers and secure contracts to buy the crop. With corporations controlling all the steps of production and processing, farmers are becoming mere slaves of industry, as they watch their profits shrinking and their autonomy disappearing. US farmers are already all-too-familiar with the shackles around their ankles, being the unwilling victims of a food system which has been steadily moving towards total integration for some time now.

Market share estimate of major seed companies in selected Southeast Asian countries, 1997.


Market Share



PT Cargill (Monsanto)


Established in 1988; undertakes production of its hybrids with the national seed center PT Sang Hyang Seri. Now wholly owned by Monsanto.
PT Pioneer Hybrida


Established in 1988; uses the national seed center PT Pertani as its main seed distributor

Bright Indonesia Seed Industry


Established in 1983 as a joint venture between Charoen Pokphand of Thailand (80%) and Central Pertiwi Indonesia (20%)
PT Monagro Kimia


Not known

Wholly owned by Monsanto, producing the popular herbicides and pesticides: Polaris, Roundup and Spark. Donated 5 tons of hybrid seeds and 1 ton of Polaris, a Roundup based herbicide, to farmers in East Jawa. Strongly promoting and expanding its Roundup herbicides through the "low-till" or "no till" agricultural system programs implemented by the government throughout Indonesia. Plans to upscale its hybrid corn seed production by Year 2001.


Cargill (Monsanto)




Currently testing corn hybrids with Novartis
Ayala Co.


In October 1998, Ayala Agricultural Development Corporation formed a joint venture with DeKalb Genetics (USA) to produce and market DeKalb hybrid corn. It plans to introduce Roundup-Ready corn in the future. DeKalb-Ayala Philippines Research Co. is another joint venture (Oct, 1998) working on tropical corn varieties.

CP-Dekalb (Monsanto)



Charoen Pokphand (CP)-DeKalb (Monsanto)


Principal foreign affiliate and licensee of DeKalb Genetics (owned by Monsanto); undertakes R&D of corn hybrids for Thailand and the ASEAN and evaluation of corn hybrid varieties in Indonesia, Vietnam, Burma and Laos. In 1997, it donated 20 metric tons of hybrid corn seed to Cambodia to be distributed free to farmers.
Cargill (Monsanto)








Already testing hybrids in Vietnam and Indonesia, and collaborating with CornWorld in the Philippines

National Maize Seed Research Institute


Major companies engaged in the market are BioSeed, Charoen Pokphand (CP)-DeKalb (Monsanto), Pacific/ICI

Source: personal communication with Dr. Danilo P. Baldos, former Agronomist/Coordinator of CIMMYT Maize Program on Crop Management Training, based on his working knowledge of the Asian seed industry.

Equally alarming is the current wave of promotion that genetic engineering is getting from governments, the scientific community and especially the private sector, under the guise of food security. Third world governments are being wooed by multinational companies to embrace genetically-modified products with their promise of increased yields and sustainability. But neither of these promises are being lived up to and in any case, food security in many parts of the region transcends the question of production and supply. A recent FAO mission to Indonesia highlighted that there is plenty of food available, but it is at a cost that an increasing number of people cannot afford18. Introducing transgenic crops is just another step in the process of progressively disempowering farmers, and destroying local markets and local economies. Contrary to these companies’ promises of securing food for all, GM crops are designed to create dependency and increased profits for corporate shareholders.

The increasing trend towards GM crops will only lead to further consolidation of larger companies through mergers and acquisitions. In the past three years alone, Monsanto has spent more than $8 billion buying up seed and agricultural companies in order to deploy its GM technologies in the field. Monsanto, which ranks second after DuPont/Pioneer in the global seed company rankings, is planning to let loose transgenic corn hybrids on Southeast Asian farms by 2001. With its recent acquisitions, it is set to fast track research and development on GM corn. Its current R&D portfolio emphasises the needs of the feed and processing industries, and ignoring the needs of those who rely on corn as a staple.

Monsanto's spending spree

Monsanto bought Cargill’s seed operations in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America for US$1.4 billion in June 1998. This acquisition includes seed research, production and testing facilities in 24 countries and distribution operations in 51 countries. Cargill’s extensive and established seed distribution network in Asia facilitates the deployment of Monsanto's proprietary technologies (Bt, Roundup herbicide resistance, and other technologies in the pipeline), thereby strengthening the link between biotechnology, agricultural processing and marketing. It has consolidated its presence in Southeast Asia with the purchase of US maize giant DeKalb in December 1998. DeKalb has a strong presence in Asia and has a large market share for hybrid seeds in China, Indonesia and Thailand, and is expanding rapidly in Vietnam, Burma and the Philippines. Monsanto also acquired Delta and Pine Land (USA) which holds the patent on the controversial "terminator technology" which prevents crops from producing viable seeds.

Biotech’s dream crop

Corn is the private sector’s favourite crop. All commercial seed sales in the industrialised world are for hybrids, which are highly profitable, and the crop’s greediness for external inputs adds to agrochemical company coffers. In the GM world, corn is the subject of more R&D and patent applications than any other crop. The GM corn products on the front line for release in Southeast Asia include:

1) Bt corn

Bt corn, which contains a gene for an insect killing toxin isolated from the soil microbe Bacillus thuringiensis, may be the first transgenic corn to enter the Southeast Asian market. Corn borers feeding on these plants die from the toxin produced by the plant. However, the industry’s claims of more sustainable corn production from reduced pesticide applications are not being realised. US Department of Agriculture data revealed no significant reduction in pesticide use amongst farmers growing Bt corn in the 1999 planting season. Nor is there any reliable increase in yield. Moreover, Bt corn is wreaking environmental havoc. In a study conducted by Cornell University, Monarch butterflies died after being fed with milkweed leaves dusted with pollen from Bt corn engineered by Novartis and Monsanto. Genetic pollution and contamination of other farmers’ crops is also becoming a reality, and current strategies for avoiding the problem of corn borers developing resistance have been acknowledged as ineffectual.

2) Herbicide-tolerant corn

Thailand is set to be the SE Asian flagship for Monsanto’s herbicide-tolerant Roundup Ready corn in Thailand, where adoption of hybrids is relatively high compared to neighboring countries. Novartis is also developing its own herbicide-tolerant corn. Roundup Ready corn plants contain a gene in their cells which enables them to withstand spraying with Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide, Roundup. By insisting that farmers buy both the seed and the herbicide from the company, Monsanto will be able to continue to reap profits from Roundup – the patent of which is about to expire in 2000! Roundup is the world’s most widely used herbicide, but it has also been associated with a host of environmental and health risks19. In Australia resistance to glyphosate has been reported in annual ryegrass where it is the most common weed, and similar signs of resistance in ryegrass and knotgrass in the UK have been observed. Glyphosate is the third most commonly reported cause of illness among farm workers in California. Exposure to glyphosate has also been linked to increased risk of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a form of cancer afflecting the lymphatic system20. USDA figures show that expanded planting of Roundup Ready soybean in the US in 1997 resulted in a 72% boost in glyphosate use. This is a far cry from the promise of reduced pesticed use that industry preaches about so loudly.

3) Value-added corn

The next generation of transgenic crops will cause farmers to become even more subservient to industry. Many are being engineered to synthesise specific additional products, such as low-phytic acid corn which is designed to increase the availability of phosphorus, thereby eliminating the need for phosphorus supplements in feed formulations. The feed and food industries will increasingly be forcing farmers to comply with their demands and produce the products they desire. As vertical integration becomes more pronounced, the seed suppliers and grain processors will be one in the same, leaving farmers stuck without other options for sale. They will have no control of the price while at the same time carrying the risks of production.

Who owns the golden crop?

While some people think that it will still take at least 5-10 years before transgenic corn is introduced in the SE Asian market21, some experts believe that ongoing developments in plant variety protection legislation will further catalyse the development of transgenic corn. The US and other industrialised countries are pushing for stronger protection of proprietary technologies used in agriculture. The World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement requires member countries to provide intellectual property rights protection for plant varieties either through patents or some kind of sui generis (unique) legislation. Developing countries are under extreme pressure to comply with TRIPS by January 1, 2000 or face retaliation through WTO trade sanctions.

The widespread adoption of patents or patent-like plant variety protection would have profound implications to many farmers in the developing world where more than 80% of seed requirement is generated through local seed supply systems. Under such rules, the traditional right of farmers to save seed would be prevented. Such legislation would largely place control of the seed market in the hands of a few multinational corporations promoting a few proprietary seeds of their choosing. This situation would have a profound impact on food security. Southern countries need to have an elbow room to develop systems of protection that truly protect farmers, communities and food security22.

Source: Compiled by GRAIN from Derwent Biotechnology Abstracts, December 1998.

The majority of patents on transgenic corn are held by a handful of major US companies. Half of the 333 biotechnology patents granted or applied for on corn worldwide can be traced to only six of the world’s agrochemical giants. Not surprisingly, the top three (DuPont-Pioneer, Monsanto and Novartis) are also the top three companies controlling the seed trade worldwide. Some of the patent claims are very broad and sweeping and have been the subject of legal disputes. For example, a patent battle is now going on in the US over who will get monopoly control over Bt crops including Bt corn. The breadth or narrowness of the patents granted by the US court system will have a huge impact on the future of corn production, trade and food security in Asia23.

Top biotech patent holders on corn


Number of Patents

Du-Pont/Pioneer (USA)


Novartis (Switzerland)


Monsanto (USA)


Advanta (UK, Netherlands)


Aventis (France)


Dow Agrosciences (USA)


Japan Tobacco (Japan)


U.S. Department of Agriculture (USA)


Gene-Shears (Australia)


Cornell University (USA)


Max-Planck Institute (Germany)


PlantTech – Biotech


University of Florida (USA)


Total top 13 patent holders

196 patents


or 59% of the total (333)

Source: Compiled by GRAIN from Derwent Biotechnology Abstracts, December 1998.

The future of corn in Southeast Asia

The region is just beginning to deal with changes in trade policies imposed by the WTO, the impact of which is already being felt by small farmers who are being forced to compete globally. Now more than ever, farmers are unprotected from the vagaries of the markets. With trade liberalisation, governments are promoting imports as a recourse to meet local demand, which undermines local capacity to produce food. Local producers are finding it ever harder to compete with cheap imports.

WTO’s Agriculture Agreement: serving the North

Countries in Asia have traditionally sought self-sufficiency in agriculture, particularly in grains. However, as members of the World Trade Organization (WTO), many of the Asian countries are obliged under the WTO’s Agriculture Agreement to open up their agricultural markets through adopting minimum import requirements and reductions in tarriffs and producer subsidies. This process of deregulation is being accelerated by pressure from the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which has created a free-trade zone among the 18 member-economies of the Asia Pacific rim. APEC is one of a number of trade agreements which provides a framework for integrating and globalising the world economy.

These trade agreements impose further constraints on the ability of developing countries to promote food security by way of import restrictions and guaranteed price supports for farmers. Many developed countries have managed to maintain high levels of agricultural subsidies by making ‘direct payments’ to producers instead of export subsidies. However, such schemes cannot operate in poor countries with limited government funds and where bulk of the people are engaged in agriculture. Despite the so-called level playing field under the WTO, these developed countries continue to sell subsidised agriculture products onto the world market, thereby depressing prices.

The massive conversion of land for export specialization has intensified the loss of farm land. Cuts in government support services such as infrastructure and rural credits are increasing the vulnerability farming communities. With the influx of cheap grains onto the world market and the restrictions imposed on developing countries to protect their domestic producers, the threat to food security is very real and growing.

It may not be long before products of genetic engineering reach farmers’ field in Asia. Government institutions and research agencies have been playing a facilitative role in introducing these genetically engineered crops in the market. Companies are easing their way through "collaborative" tests and field trials. And scientists are caught-up in defending these companies and/or their technologies. As usual, there is very little, if any, technology transfer involved, since most of these genetically engineered crops have been imported only for testing.

Monsanto has been testing Bt cotton in Thailand since 1996 and is only awaiting the Agriculture Ministry’s decision for local distribution. Monsanto’s Bt corn, Roundup Ready corn and Stacked Ready corn are currently being tested at Kasetsart University and in Phitsanulok under the supervision of the Agricultural Extension Department. In Indonesia, Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred have just finished their field testing of Bt corn. In the Philippines, Pioneer and Monsanto is waiting approval for their Bt corn to be field tested in collaboration with the Institute of Plant Breeding.

Governments are at various stages of refining their biosafety regulations. The Philippines already has biosafety regulations in place, and is revising its regulations on field testing. Indonesia had issued guidelines for conducting research and is still discussing guidelines for the release and importation of biotechnology products. Thailand had also issued guidelines for research on organisms produced by genetic manipulation which are likely to present hazards to public health or the environment.

Concerned groups are calling for wider participation by the public. In Thailand, a wider and a more diverse representation of the agriculture, consumer, health sectors and biodiversity experts within the biosafety committee panel is being pushed, and there are calls for more transparency and further tests on environmental and health risks. In the Philippines, groups are calling for an independent regulatory body, because the same agency that promotes transgenic crops is also the one regulating and approving their release. In the biosafety guidelines of Indonesia, there is no such thing as "prior informed consent" or even public notice about fielding test and release of genetically engineered organisms24. Hence, the Indonesian public is left uninformed and unaware of the existence of such tests and the possible hazards and risks involved, making it relatively easier for the companies to tinker with GM crops in the field.

In the US, genetically modified crops had long been approved for planting without much opposition. But in Asia, as in Europe, opposition to these crops is growing amongst farmers and the public. There is a real opportunity for the public in SE Asia to persuade their governments that introducing GM crops spells the kiss of death for food security and self-sufficiency.

To the extent they can, many farmers are already attempting to prove that there are valid alternatives to GM crops and the chemical treadmill that has become so widespread in Asian farmlands. Farmers are finding ways of coping with pests and diseases in the field without having to rely on expensive pesticides and other external inputs. In the Philippines, damage to crop yields due to the corn borer amount to 10-15% each season. But instead of jumping on the chemical treadmill, farmers have discovered that the most effective and cheapest means of minimising damage is careful timing of planting and detasseling (removing) the male flowers. Farmers in Vietnam have been able to control the spread of banded leaf and sheath blight by simply stripping the lower infected leaves touching the soil, where infection normally starts25. By doing this, the disease can be easily controlled and economic damage averted.

At the same time, various groups are putting more energy into devising alternative approaches to better manage plant genetic resources in the field and to farm more sustainably. In the Philippines, in response to the on-going conversion of prime corn lands in Mindanao into palm oil, asparagus, pineapple and banana plantations, and the onslaught of El Niño which devasted major corn producing regions, farmers and NGOs have been rescuing the seeds of local and indigenous corn varieties. From this, farmers are also learning to breed materials which are more appropriate to their needs and suited to their environment—seeds they can also call their own, and can share or exchange freely without fear of prosecution.

GM crops are being touted as the answer to the South’s prayers for food security and sustainability. In reality, they will take the region in the opposite direction – towards environmental upheaval, extreme food insecurity and the enslavement of farmers and consumers alike. GM crops may be bad news for the industrialised world, but they present far greater threats to countries in the South, where peoples’ livelihoods are so much more closely linked to their ability to grow food and where local markets are crucial to community survival. Actions must be taken immediately to prevent Southeast Asian farmlands from becoming a playground for the biotech industry.


While this paper could only provide a background to the recent corn scenario in Southeast Asia, it is very important for people to organize and act on its threats and opportunities.

In terms of threats, the immediate issue facing our countries right now is the importation, testing and commercial release of transgenic corn. It is important to ensure that the interests of farmers, consumers, the environment and the poor in general are firmly accounted for in this process. Many people throughout the region are getting active in biosafety debates, as well as the discussions on the new round of multilateral trade negotiations at the WTO. Both of these could decisively protect or neglect the public interest, depending on the level of society’s involvement.

At the same time, changes in technologies or markets should not undermine the opportunities for rural families to continue cultivating corn in the context of sustainable agriculture in Southeast Asia. Despite the growing influence of private sectors on our governments, we need strong public research systems that develop corn varieties and technologies relevant to poor farmers and to the food needs of our people. We also need to support alternative research and marketing structures where farmers can take control in setting priorities and improving production, processing and distribution systems themselves. Alternative farmer-led research and development approaches can be very successful on the ground, as we have seen in our countries with rice.

Priorities for action:

* Lobby your governments to adopt a stricter biosafety policies/protocols especially on importing transgenic seeds and planting materials.

* Appeal to your government to assess or reassess the possible impacts of GM crops on the food system, health and the environment.

* Get involved with grassroots initiatives promoting sustainable production systems and research towards the needs of small farmers, biodiverse farming systems and marginal environments.

* Spread the word. The rights of farmers and indigenous communities need to be heard and strengthened. Contact organizations and networks in your respective countries who are knowledgeable about the issues.

* Opposition against genetically engineered organisms is growing. Work or link with other organizations campaigning against genetic engineering and join local, national and regional initiatives.


(*) This report was researched, written and published as a joint effort between BIOTHAI, GRAIN, MASIPAG and PAN Indonesia. Our objective was to compile a situationer on the changing corn sector in SE Asia, to enrich the work of local actors dealing with new pressures on sustainable agriculture here in the region. For further information, please contact:

BIOTHAI (The Thai Network on Community Rights and Biodiversity)
801/8 Ngamwongwan 27, Soi 5, Muang
Nonthaburi 11000 THAILAND
Tel: (66-2) 952 73 71
Fax: (66-2) 952 83 12
Email: [email protected]
MASIPAG (Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Ikauunlad ng Agham Pang-Agricultura/Farmers-Scientist Partnership for Development, Inc.)
3346 Aguila St., Rhoda's Subd.
Los Baños, Laguna 4030 PHILIPPINES
Tel (63-49) 536-5549 or 536-4205
Fax (63-49) 536-5526
Email: [email protected]
PAN-Indonesia (Pesticide Action Network-Indonesia)
Jl. Persada Raya #1
Menteng Dalam
Jakarta 10210 INDONESIA
Tel/Fax: (62-21) 829 65 45
Email: [email protected]
GRAIN (Genetic Resources Action International)



1. Resolution No.26 Series of 1999, "Resolution expressing grave concern over the processing of the application of Cargill Philippines Inc. for the field release of genetically engineered corn in Brgy. Lagao, approved 1 June 1999 by the Sangguniang Baranggay of Lagao, General Santos City.

2. Delmo,G.C. (1999), "Market situationer: a question of quantity." MARID Agribusiness Digest. Vol.9, No.13, May, p 29.

3. Interview with Dr. Danilo P. Baldos former Agronomist/Coordinator of CIMMYT Maize Program Crop Management Training in Thailand.

4. Pabendon, M.B. (1997) "Maize seed regulation, distribution and marketing in Indonesia." In: Baldos D.P. (ed), Seed Production of Maize in Asia and Researches in Crop Management, Asian maize Training Center, Thailand, pp 48-55.

5. Vong P. (1997) "Maize seed production, processing, marketing and distribution in Cambodia." In: Baldos D.P. (ed), Seed Production of Maize in Asia and Researches in Crop Management, Asian maize Training Center, Thailand, pp 10-15.

6. Interview with Dr. Artemio Salazar, maize breeder of the University of the Philippines Los Baños-Institute of Plant Breeding.

7. Morris M.L. (1998), "Thailand", In: Morris ML (ed): Maize Seed Industries in Developing Countries, Lynne Rienner, USA, pp 269-283.

8. Discussion of MASIPAG with corn farmers in Mindanao. Further, there is no substantial increase in yields to cover higher cost of production, which makes hybrids unattractive.

9. Tjahjadi, R.V. (1998): Situationer: Rice, Corn and Soybean Trade Issue, Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Indonesia.Unpub.

10. Interview with Dr. Artemio Salazar, maize breeder of the University of the Philippines Los Baños-Institute of Plant Breeding.

11. Comparison of yields and stability of best performing hybrids and OPVs in 1985 using National Cooperative Tests data in the Philippines showed that OPVs are generally more stable than hybrids and that the yield difference between the two is statistically insignificant. See Costales, A. (1993) Technological potentials and constraints in the Philippine corn feed industry. ASAP Pub.2.03, May.

12. Dowswell et al (1996), Maize in the Third World, Westview Press, USA, p 114.

13. FAO State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, 1997.

14. Interview with a staff of DA-Biotechnology Research Agency for Food Crops in Indonesia by PAN-Indonesia.

15. Laphanjob S (1997), "Maize Seeds Production in Thailand", In: Baldos D.P. (ed), Seed Production of Maize in Asia and Researches in Crop Management, Asian Maize Training Center, Thailand, pp 110-116.

16. Do Hai Dien (1997), "Seed production and processing of maize in Vietnam and Namdinh province, In: Baldos D.P. (ed), Seed Production of Maize in Asia and Researches in Crop Management, Asian maize Training Center, Thailand, pp 123-129.

17. Seow, A (1998). "Singapore: Monsanto Sees SE Asian Corn Hybrid in Three Years", Reuters, 15 July.

18. FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment Mission to Indonesia. Special Report. 8 April 1999.

19. For further discussion on Roundup, see "Roundup ready or not", Seedling, Vol.14 No.1, GRAIN, March 1997.

20. Hardell, L and Eriksson, M (1999), "A Case-Control Study of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and Exposure to Pesticides," Cancer Vol. 85, No. 6, March.

21. Interview with Dr. R.V. Gerpacio, CIMMYT Economics Programme and Dr. D.P. Baldos former Agronomist/Coordinator of CIMMYT Maize Program Crop Management Training in Thailand and former Professor at the University of the Philippines Los Baños Department of Agronomy.

22. For a more detailed discussion see "UPOV on the war path", Seedling, Vol. 16, No.2, June 1999

23. Falcon, W.P. et al (1998), "The maize transition in Asia: unlocking the controversy," American Journal of Agricultural Economics Vol. 80, No.5, pp 960-969.

24. Personal communication of Mr. R.Tjahjadi (PAN-Indonesia) with the Director of the Agency of Agricultural Research Development (AARD) and the Director of the Central Research Institute for Food Crops (CRIFC) of the Ministry of Agriculture in Indonesia.

25. Interview with Dr. Artemio Salazar, maize breeder of the University of the Philippines Los Baños-Institute of Plant Breeding.

Author: Biothai, GRAIN, MASIPAG and PAN Indonesia
Links in this article: