South Africa's regulatory shambles (15/3/2004)

As this article by a South African politician makes clear, in the only country in sub-Saharan Africa where there is significant commercial growing of GM crops, the weak regulations that exist are not even being applied.

South Africa's regulatory shambles
Business Day (Johannesburg), March 11, 2004
Ruth Rabinowitz

THERE are more than 12259 plants and animals threatened with extinction, according to the latest Red List published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

This is 10 more species than last year and also more than the number of new species identified. On the list are the South African riverine rabbit and cycad.

Hence we are on a downward spiral and if our legislation meant to protect biodiversity is not effective, our response to this looming crisis amounts to nothing; our support for the United Nations convention on biological diversity, the Cartagena protocol and the World Summit on Sustainable Development declaration mere words and empty promises.

While biotechnology is regarded as the phenomenon of the 21st century it has been practised for millennia. It is the use of life forms in technology. Biodiversity is the variety of life forms that enables species to respond to stress and to evolve. Its importance has been recognised since we gained better understanding of evolution and ecology.

While we humans are trivial microscopic specs in the macrocosm, it is we who must prevent technology from fouling up the magnificent work of nature.

Modern biotechnology refers usually to the use of genes, a field that gives humans a far greater capacity to create and to destroy, and it is no wonder genetically modified foods are a matter of public debate and concern. At a conference in SA this year, the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Network met to try to reach consensus on the likely effect of genetically modified foods in Africa. An overview of the pros and cons of genetically modified organisms came up with these points:

Arguments for the use of genetically modified organisms were that they: produce seeds better able to resist stress; produce more nutritious staple foods; make farm animals more productive; produce more food from less land; reduce the need for certain chemicals; and produce seeds that grow in infertile land. Also, foods will have longer shelf lives; we may be able to identify diseases more easily using genetic fingerprinting; develop vaccines and identify allergenic genes.

The arguments against genetically modified organisms were that: genes may jump from one species to another, such as from a plant that resists weedkiller to weeds, rendering them resistant too (once released they cannot be recalled); inserted genes may cause harmful mutations; sleeper genes could be accidentally switched on and active genes switched off; genetically modified crops could replace normal crop varieties or vie with wild plants and replace them with the modified version; modified crops could create resistant insect species and have a harmful effect on insects essential for pollination; allergenic genes may be transferred through mixing plant and animal genes; genetically modified organisms [only] proved safe for animals could enter the human food chain; marker genes that confer antibiotic resistance and are used to show that the process of gene transfer has occurred could heighten resistance to antibiotics. Further, multinationals may gain control of most seed and food production.

As that list shows, advantages of genetically modified organisms are all shortlived and could be attained in various other ways, such as by improved organic farming methods. The hazards are longterm and might be irreversible.

The Genetically Modified Organisms Act, which regulates the research, production, importation and sale of such organisms, is inadequate as a shield against genetically modified organism fallout.

The act requires that the registrar of the Genetically Modified Organisms Council may require a risk assessment, a field trial and an environmental impact assessment of any product involving such organisms. In SA, at least 200 permits have been applied for to work with genetically modified organisms. All have had risk assessments and field trials.

Three products have been licensed for commercial farming (Bt cotton, Bt maize and Ready Roundup soya, which form 80%, 20% and 11% of the market respectively), but no research has been done to assess the effect of these crops on the environment.

The Biotechnology Bill adopted in Parliament recently has the same flaws as the Genetically Modified Organisms Act. It enables the minister to call for an environmental impact assessment if he thinks there may be harm to the environment. But without such an assessment why should he expect such harm?

Ironically, the National Environmental Management Act states that every activity requiring a permit also requires an assessment, which must be advertised to the community.

However, between the words and the action, falls the shadow. Our laws are ineffectively enacted. We need an urgent reappraisal of the Genetically Modified Organisms Act, making it mandatory that all genetically modified crops have environmental impact assessments.

There must be a paper trail from seed to stomach for all modified foods, so that if something does go wrong it can be stopped and prevented in future.

We also need unimpeded transparency concerning who has applied for and been given permits to do what, where and why. Only then can we keep a wary eye on humans tinkering with nature's genes and give meaning to our alleged desire to protect our magnificent variety of flora and fauna for future generations.

Rabinowitz is Inkatha Freedom Party spokeswoman. The article is in response to the Public Understanding of Biotechnology conference in Pretoria this week.  

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