Growing Rice in the Spice Islands: Pesticide Resistance and Regulation in Indonesia

Yohanes Andi Trisyono

Yohanes Andi Trisyono, Ph.D., studies the environmental effects of pesticides and works to improve pesticide regulation from his laboratory at the Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. (Photo credit: Laura Kraft)

By Laura Kraft

This post is the ninth in the “Travel Bug” series by Laura Kraft, a recent graduate from the University of Georgia, who is chronicling her travels in Asia from an entomological perspective. See earlier posts from the series.

A few years ago, Yohanes Andi Trisyono, Ph.D., of the Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, found himself in the midst of a tense discussion among Javanese rice farmers. The farmers were presenting news that the population numbers of brown planthopper (Nilaparvata lugens), a major rice pest and vector of viruses, had increased from three to six individuals per mound, and the farmers had to make some tough decisions.

Laura Kraft

They were still relatively new to communicating to each other in this manner. While the farmers had each owned small, neighboring plots of land for years, they had each practiced different pest reduction tactics, unsuccessfully. Then, the Ministry of Agriculture of Indonesia and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) collaborated to build integrated pest management (IPM) field schools in the region, with help and instruction from the professors at UGM. After four growing seasons of education and community building, Trisyono had come to supervise the latest meeting.

When news of the increased brown planthopper population had been shared, the farmers, after some discussion, agreed to two courses of action: to not spray any pesticides yet and to reconvene in three days to see if the planthopper’s natural enemies could handle the recent growth spurt.

In three days, as suspected, the natural enemies did their job, and populations had dropped again. The meeting was a huge success in bringing IPM and area-wide control to Indonesia, just one of several goals Trisyono has for his research and outreach.

Valentina Erline

Valentina “Valen” Erline, an assistant in Trisyono’s lab, dissects rice stalks to test for mortality of yellow stem borer (Scirpophaga incertulas) three days after an application of fipronil. She first became interested in agriculture through her uncle, who would bring his plant breeding work home and allow 8-year-old Valen to help with the research. (Photo credit: Laura Kraft)

Trisyono’s research focuses on monitoring resistance of insect populations to insecticides as well as trying to document and understand pest resurgence. Resurgence occurs when a pest population gets knocked down by a pesticide only to increase past the previous population shortly thereafter.

Populations of the brown planthopper had been resurging after deltamethrin was sprayed at sublethal concentrations. Trisyono’s laboratory found that the sublethal dosage caused females in later generations to have increased fecundity. The research had wide effects. Upon seeing the data, government officials moved to change the pesticide registration so that sublethal effects would no longer cause resurgence in this detrimental pest.

One of the challenges of pesticide registration in Indonesia, however, is that many of the laws and rules are spread out over multiple ministries. The Ministry of Agriculture controls agricultural pesticides, whereas the Ministry of Trade has rules and regulations involving post-harvest pesticides being used on products entering port cities. This is because the pesticide regulation was built up piece-meal as the Indonesian economy grew quickly and expanded globally, importing new pesticides and producing new agricultural products.

One example of the bureaucratic challenges involved in pesticide regulation is best illustrated through transgenic cotton, which was introduced some years ago to southern Sumatra. The crop was highly successful at limiting populations of target pests, but government officials were concerned about non-target pests that weren’t being treated, despite the fact that these were not economically injurious. So, the government did not update the permit, which required the company to re-register the transgenic crops every year for each of the seven districts in southern Sumatra where it was permitted to be grown. Over time, it was not an economically viable strategy for the company producing the crop, and it eventually pulled the crop from the market.

Now, better regulations have been put into place, allowing transgenic crops to be grown in a larger geographic area without having to be registered on a yearly basis, and companies are interested in entering the Indonesian market again. Until then, each of these laws has to individually be rewritten, which involves a lot of red tape and challenges to researchers like Trisyono who are advocating for better pesticide regulation.

brown planthopper (Nilaparvata lugens)

This is Trisyono’s laboratory colony of susceptible brown planthoppers (Nilaparvata lugens), used to test pesticide resistance. (Photo credit: Laura Kraft)

The FAO recently reached out to Trisyono due to his experience consulting about new pesticide regulation in the Indonesian government. The FAO wanted him to join a project with two lawyers to travel to Timor-Leste, a country that became independent 15 years ago, to develop a system of laws for pesticide regulation in the new country. Right now, Timor-Leste follows Indonesia’s system in some respects and imports pesticides with little to no regulation, but the hope is that Trisyono and his colleagues can write up a better system overall that includes all pesticide regulatory laws, from registration to use to sales to disposal, under one ministry, in order to avoid some of the bureaucratic challenges of the legislature that Indonesia has implemented through its piecemeal adoption of laws.

Back in Yogyakarta, Trisyono still helps to try and decrease pesticide dependency in Indonesia at all levels, from the government regulations to farmer application. As he points out, it takes time before these changes will take place. “Increasing the knowledge [through IPM field schools] is not a big deal,” he explains. To get farmers to actually adopt IPM tactics instead of returning to pesticide applications as soon as the field school ends, “we have to be diligent, we have to be patient, and we have to be dynamic,” he says.  His diligence, patience, and dynamism are paying off as farmers around Java come together to discuss community management tactics, breaking years of tradition of spraying unneeded pesticides and instead working together to improve the health of their local environment.


Laura Kraft is a recent graduate from the University of Georgia who is taking a year off to travel the world before returning home to start a Ph.D. program at North Carolina State University in the fall of 2017.

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