Africa, Development & Aid, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, Health

SOUTH AFRICA: GMOs – Strategic Priority in Whose Interest?

Kristin Palitza

CAPE TOWN, Oct 27 2009 (IPS) - The South African government is in the process of drafting regulations to police genetically modified organisms (GMO) as part of the national Consumer Protection Act, but environmental experts are worried the GMO section of the new Act, which was signed into law last April, will not be put into practice.

“Even if we are having good laws, we are not sure who will implement and monitor them,” cautioned Charmaine Treherne, director of the South African Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering (SAFeAGE).

She spoke to IPS during a panel discussion between parliamentarians and anti-GMO lobbyists on the implications of GM crops on sustainable livelihoods and food sovereignty at the Centre for the Book in Cape Town.

“For example, the law stipulates that GMO crops need to be inspected, but we have only one inspector for the whole of South Africa,” Treherne lamented. “So if we want the necessary monitoring, the onus is on NGOs (non-governmental organisations) to act as watchdogs.”

This is almost impossible to do on a national scale, she said, because it costs about $200 to test the safety of a single crop. “It’s too expensive for us NGOs to do government’s job,” complained Treherne.

The safety and nutritional value of a GMO crop are assessed by comparing the crop’s DNA with the DNA with a currently consumed, plant-derived crop that is generally accepted as safe.The South African government is a big proponent of GMO crops. It commercially released genetically modified maize, cotton and soy several years ago and has started experimental trials on sorghum, potatoes and a range of other seeds and plants, including vines.

The South African government is a big proponent of GMO crops. It commercially released genetically modified maize, cotton and soy several years ago and has started experimental trials on sorghum, potatoes and a range of other seeds and plants, including vines.

“South Africa is forging ahead with GMO. It’s seen as a key strategic priority, but it’s questionable in whose interest this really is,” confirmed Michelle Pressend, research, policy and advocacy coordinator of environmental NGO Biowatch, suggesting that government concern for economic gain was larger than its concern for the health of its citizens and equal access to food.   “We are only in the beginning stages in terms of legislating GMO. There is little transparency. We are in danger of multi-national concerns driving our food policy,” she added.

Lance Greyling, chief whip of opposition party Independent Democrats and a Member of Parliament (MP), is also worried the regulatory environment favours GMO companies. “The GMO Amendment Act is progressive legislation, but the presently drafted regulations might bring this down. It is of great concern to me that the control of food production by GM companies entrenches skewed power relations that breed inequalities in South Africa.”

“If we want a more sustainable world, we need to change the way we produce food,” Greyling added. “If we were serious about GMO, the onus should be placed on companies to prove products are safe, not on us to prove that they are unsafe.”

Environmental institutions, such as Biowatch and SAFeAGE, demand more research on the impact of GMO food on human health. They also lobby against multi-national companies applying for patents for seeds, call for detailed labelling of products that contain GMO and a threshold for GMO contamination of food.

Moreover, NGOs ask for more public consultation by government. “We need better mechanisms for public participation. We need to get to a point where our government takes notice of what we say, instead of holding public hearings to tick of the box (but ignoring our input),” said Treherne.

Wide-reaching public education campaigns to inform South Africans about the potential dangers of GMO are necessary to be able to pressurise government to be more transparent and consult all levels society on a wider scale.

Former chair of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), Jody Kollapen, says institutions such as the SAHRC, should play an important role in broadening public debate on issues of people’s access to food and promised to recommend to the commission to place GMO on its agenda.

“There has hardly been public debate on GM crops in South Africa because decisions about GMO don’t take place in a neutral power setting. The control of genetic resources gravitates to the hands of a few. It’s a chilling prospect,” said Kollapen, referring to companies, like American biotechnology giant Monsanto, which are systematically trying to patent seeds to control food production on an international scale.

Stone Sizani, MP of South Africa’s ruling party African National Congress (ANC) and chair of rural development of the Land Reform Portfolio Committee, promised to advocate in parliament to ensure the issue of GMO crops “is taken further”.

He encouraged NGOs to lobby portfolio committees within government to protect South African citizens from GMO food, claiming this was a problem mainly inherited from previous governments and driven by federal commercial agribusiness organisation AgriSA. “AgriSA is one of the main propagators of GMO in South Africa in the name of progress and technology,” said Sizani.

He said organisations, such as AgriSA, are pushing for commercial farming of monocultures as well as export-driven farming, despite the fact that small-scale farming would benefit many more South Africans and address issues of poverty and food security. “We need to look at agriculture from the point of view of rural development,” he recommended.

“GMO should be excluded from agricultural activity,” concluded Sizani, agreeing with the other panellists that the country’s lawmakers have the interests of GMO giants at heart instead of the interests of their citizens.

He also called for more transparency, pointing to the fact that South Africa is currently testing genetically modified potatoes in six secret locations. In multiple countries, GMO trials are being conducted in secret locations because GMO producers say they are worried the plants may be vandalised by anti-GMO activists.

However, not having access to information about the details of such trials “is not in the interest of the people,” said Sizani, complaining: “Here we are, secretly testing GM potatoes that the Americans have said ‘no’ to.”

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