The Challenges and Opportunities of Biotechnology

Jose W. Fernandez
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs
The Indonesia Agricultural Technology and Investment Forum
Jakarta, Indonesia
October 6, 2010


Thank you very much for your kind welcome. Ladies and gentlemen, it is truly a pleasure to be here with you this morning. I am especially honored to be here with Dr. Bayu, and with Ambassador Bost of the Borlaug Institute to open this Joint Agriculture and Investment Forum of the Indonesia-U.S. partnership.

Just two weeks ago we received the good news that one hundred million fewer people suffered from malnutrition around the world — but nobody celebrated. In fact, Jaques Diouf, Director General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization commiserated: “nearly one billion people hungry is, and remains, unacceptable. A child dying every six seconds because of hunger is a tragedy and a scandal.” And so it is.

For us, the positive side of this news is that the reduction in malnutrition is largely a result of increased grain harvests in India, where they are aggressively pursuing new technologies. But, I repeat: it is not enough.

And here, I would like to repeat the compelling words of President Yudhoyono in Washington two years ago when he said that “the world needs a second ‘green revolution’ to follow the successful green revolution of the 1970s.” President Yudhoyono recognized that this will “call for massive investments in agriculture, irrigation, fertilizers, high-yield seeds, and agro-technology to make the changes needed worldwide in agriculture.” Well, today we have an opportunity in this conference to move closer to making that a reality.

It is wonderful to be back in Indonesia. In the few months since my last trip in May, our partnership has grown a great deal. The importance of this relationship was underscored by the announcement at the G-20 meeting in Toronto by President Yudhoyono and President Obama that the two countries are developing a comprehensive partnership. Then, on September 17, Secretary Clinton and Indonesian Foreign Minister Natalegawa co-chaired the inaugural meeting of the joint commission, which oversees implementation of the comprehensive partnership’s plan of action.

I was fortunate to be at that meeting, which demonstrated the long-term commitment on both sides to broaden, deepen, and elevate the bilateral relations between Indonesia and the United States in order to confront the challenges of the 21st century. The work that we undertake here in this conference will play a critical role in connecting our interests in economic development, education, and science and technology.

The Challenges & Opportunities of Biotechnology

And so I would like to spend the next ten minutes or so talking about three things: first, the challenges and opportunities of biotechnology; Second, the need for cooperation in post-harvest technology; and third, opportunities for partnership between U.S. and Indonesian educational institutions in this area.

As most of you know, the biggest challenges we face in the field of agriculture will continue to be how to meet the needs of a growing population, on less land, and in a sustainable manner. The projections for the next few decades are dire. Our world is getting more and more crowded. Global food demand is forecast to double between now and 2050 as the world’s population grows by 50% to nine billion people. At the same time, we now understand that the world’s climate is changing. The effects of this change will not be uniform, but will dramatically affect weather patterns. The results will be drought in some areas, or violent storms and excessive rainfall in others. It is estimated that the effects of climate change may reduce global agricultural productivity by as much as 27% by the year 2050.

Therefore we face a double-edged challenge. We must not only grow more food on the same land to feed the world, but we have to do so in a way that both adapts to and mitigates climate change. And while there are no magic bullets, we must look to new technologies, including biotechnology, for the role that they can play in the “new green revolution”. I believe that biotechnology and the improved crops it can develop will prove to be an important new element in our traditional package of tools to increase productivity and address head-on the challenges of climate change.

But today there is still resistance to a broader acceptance of biotechnology. In order to address these barriers to understanding, I see the need to develop a four-pronged strategy to promote the benefits of biotechnology. First, we must focus on the analytic nature and reliability of the science, rather than on the fear of change. Science is on the side of agricultural biotechnology. Second, we must respond to the critics with confidence and clarity to refute their fears and objections. Third, we must build alliances that reinforce education, participation, and a variety of new collaborative applications. And finally, we must anticipate where the difficulties in understanding and application may arise and prepare to resolve the issues. By highlighting the sound science behind these developments and continuing to build strong partnerships, we hope to overcome resistance and deploy more of this important technology.

The U.S. is ready to fully support Indonesia in its implementation of this technology. We encourage Indonesia not only to incorporate biotechnology as an important part of its strategy to increase agricultural production and expand economic development, but to become a leader in the region in advancing the benefits of this technology. Indonesia has the potential to be a net exporter of genetically engineered/hybrid seed throughout the Southeast Asian region.

It is easy, now that the technology has been around for 20 years, to lose sight of the transformative power it has had. It is easy to fail to see how much it has already changed our world. Much like the transformations brought on by steam power in the industrial revolution, or computers in the information revolution, biotechnology is a strategic technology that will create tremendous success in a new green revolution, boosting the global economy, and increasing the quality of life for farmers.

Biotechnology has produced dramatic economic gains for those who have adopted it. For example, in the short span of seven years, from 2002 to 2008, biotech cotton has generated more than 5 billion dollars in economic benefits for Indian farmers and has contributed to the doubling of yield that transformed India from a cotton importer to a major cotton exporter.

Agricultural biotechnology also provides environmental benefits. The adoption of biotech varieties has significantly reduced pesticide use, and has allowed many farmers to adopt no-till farming practices, to reduce soil erosion, energy consumption and water requirements. In one example alone, Bt cotton has reduced the need for insecticides by 50%, resulting in savings for the farmer and increased health benefits for both producers and consumers.

We also see the use of biotech in addressing challenges of climate change and global warming. Agriculture and forestry today are estimated to contribute approximately 31% of global greenhouse gas emission. Game-changing strategies like biotechnology give us the means to significantly reduce the production of these greenhouse gas emissions through the increasing adoption of cultivation practices such as low-till agriculture, which helps to retain carbon in the soil. These savings can be substantial — in 2008 alone, the benefits of using biotech-enabled technologies was equivalent to getting more than 6 million cars off of the road.

Post Harvest Investment

Biotechnology is just one tool at Indonesia’s disposal. There are also more traditional areas of agricultural technology that can and should be part of our partnership to develop agriculture. These include foreign investment in hybrid seed, trade in livestock genetics, and the reduction of post-harvest losses.

The loss of agricultural products after they are harvested remains one of the most pressing and immediate issues in many countries, including here in Indonesia. But Indonesia is not unique. Incredibly, one-third of all crops produced in many countries are lost before they can be consumed, mostly in the storage and transportation sectors. So while we are addressing production through new technologies, we cannot forget the need to resolve these post-harvest issues. Clearly both of these efforts go hand-in-hand and will require resources and coordination by both the private and public sectors. Increased trade and investment can bring to bear new solutions to solve these problems.

The United States and Indonesia have an important agricultural trade relationship – one that could exceed $6 billion in 2010. Indonesia is the United States’ eighth largest trading partner, and the United States is Indonesia’s second largest partner. Clearly, we have much to build upon.

University Linkages: Putting it all Together

Technology implementation and trade are important areas for growth, but in order to sustain innovation over the long term, we also have much to share in the area of basic research and education. This is the area where university linkages between the United States and Indonesia can play an important role in technology transfer and continuing cooperation.

Through our expanded partnership we have an opportunity to build on the relationships between Indonesian scholars and U.S. universities. These connections already run deep, with hundreds of students from Indonesia having received advanced degrees in the United States over the years. We have a wonderful opportunity to rekindle that connection through agriculture and agro-technology.

We have worked with Indonesia in the area of disease-resistant potatoes through the agricultural biotechnology support program sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development and led by Cornell University. Also through USAID, we have partnered with Indonesia under the program for biosafety systems, led by the International Food Policy Research Institute, to build the capacity of Indonesian regulators and policy makers to make informed, science-based decisions on the use of biotechnology. I am happy to announce that we will be renewing both of these partnerships.

USAID will work with the Indonesian government and the program for biosafety systems to develop a new fully functional biosafety framework. Dr. Judy Chamber, director of the Program for Biosafety Systems (IFPRI) will be elaborating on this tomorrow in the new technologies session. USAID and Cornell University will partner with Indonesian scientists and provide technical support to their ongoing work on potatoes and other important crops. Dr. Frank Shotkoski, from Cornell University, will elaborate on the crop development work in the plenary panel.

We will also build on long-standing partnerships with international agricultural research centers. USAID will support the International Rice Research Institute and the Indonesian Agency for Agricultural Research and Development and other partners in collaboration to roll out golden rice in this country. As many of you know, golden rice will be an important food-based approach to alleviating vitamin a deficiency and associated serious health issues here in Indonesia.

U.S. land grant institutions have much to share with Indonesian agricultural universities in terms of educational opportunities as well as in the area of joint research and extension programs. Over the past 150 years the U.S. land grant system has enabled the benefits of research to flow directly from university labs into the hands of U.S. farmers – resulting in the adoption of many innovative agricultural techniques and tools.

A sustained partnership in agricultural technology needs to emphasize active linkages between universities. One great example is the visit of U.S. Science Envoy Dr. Bruce Albert to the Institut Pertanian Bogor (IPB or Bogor Agricultural University) Center of Excellence. The Southeast Asian food and agricultural science technology center (Seafast) in Bogor represents a direct link between two important agricultural universities, Texas A&M University and IPB. I would encourage the development of more of these centers of excellence, whether brick and mortar institutions like Seafast, or virtual centers.

And I would go further. These partnerships should go beyond institutional linkages, and extend to the relationship between the private sector and the government as well. The private sector has the capability in many cases to provide the funding necessary to develop successful new agricultural systems and products in cooperation with government programs.


Let me reiterate that it is critical to create the proper environment to stimulate the development of new technology. This will provide the way to advance from new academic hypotheses in the lab to tangible benefits in the field, and will allow the development of increasing efficiencies in moving the harvest from the farm to the table. The United States and Indonesia have much to share in the area of agriculture.

My challenge to you today, is to lay the institutional and investment framework to make that happen, and to help put in place the foundation that will enable a science-based approach to move forward. And with that, I will close my remarks. But before I do, let me again express my thanks for having me here today, and ask all of you that, as we move forward over the next two days, we look for ways to remove barriers and create linkages that will provide the impetus for economic growth and development.