Regulatory capture in South Africa - the extraordinary tale of Muffy Koch (30/5/2004)


The NGO Biowatch is currently taking the South African Government to court over access to information on GM crops. For years, Biowatch has been trying unsuccessfully to get access to safety data and information on which GMOs are being imported, tested, grown and released in South Africa.

Official stonewalling, however, is but the tip of the iceberg. South Africa provides one of the worst examples anywhere in the world of regulatory capture. As one South African critic recently put it, 'In the UK you have the likes of Lord Dick Taverne and Sense about Science and they are a bit of a nuisance, but in South Africa we have their equivalent actually running the show!'

The profile below of pro-GM lobbyist Muffy Koch gives a sense of the extraordinary conflicts of interest within the South African system. This is a country where a lobbyist and her private company appear to be getting paid to help guide GM crops through a regulatory system of which she herself is a part.

Koch's story also reveals how South Africa is being used as biotech's gateway to Africa. In particular, we are seeing a wholesale attempt to export South Africa's biosafety regime to the rest of the continent. Yet this is a system that has been described by environmental and development lawyers in South Africa as displaying a 'cynical disregard' for contemporary international and national environmental principles, as well as for the development imperatives of South Africa.

As part of this process of 'South Africanisation', Muffy Koch is being paid by international bodies to contribute to the development of 'biosafety' systems in different parts of Africa, while at the same time playing a leading role in a controversial lobby group that's fighting tooth and nail for GM crops.

Muffy Koch's story is one of African sovereignty and biosafety under carefully crafted attack.

MUFFY KOCH: a GM watch profile
[for all the links to articles and source material:]

Along with TJ Buthelezi, Dr Jocelyn Webster and Prof Jennifer Thompson, Mrs Muffy Koch is one of the key pro-GM lobbyists operating out of South Africa, a country where the uptake of GM crops has been amongst the most rapid anywhere in the world.

Muffy Koch's career raises important questions about where the lines are drawn between regulation, lobbying and private companies, and in particular about why an ardent and controversial advocate of a particular technology should be repeatedly employed in a regulatory capacity, as well as in assisting in the development of appropriate systems for its regulation.

Muffy Koch is a former official of the South African Committee on Genetic Experimentation (SAGENE). SAGENE became South Africa's official regulator in 1989 and had Jennifer Thompson as its Chair. SAGENE approved the first GM crops to be grown commercially anywhere in Africa: a Monsanto Bt cotton and a white maize. The latter was a global first - a genetically engineered white maize had never previously been grown commercially anywhere in the world.

When SAGENE was superceded as a regulatory body, Koch continued to be involved in the regulation of GM crops, serving on a sub-committee of a new Advisory Committee which provided scientific advice on GM crop releases. While it is an Executive Council which is the final decision making body, heavy reliance is placed on the Advisory Commitee to furnish expert scientific and technical advice. A round this time Koch also set up her own biotechnology consultancy, a company trading as Innovation Biotechnology, later relaunched as Golden Genomics.

For the biotech industry South Africa is the ideal gateway to the rest of Africa. According to Africabio, the industry lobby group of which Koch is a member, 'South Africa has a national strategy on biotechnology; it has clearly accepted that modern genetic technologies are bringing a wide range of benefits, it has excellent legislation in place, and it is engaged in public awareness activities... The GMO Act that regulates all research, development, field testing, import, export and commercial use is one of the best in the world.' (Press release, May 2004)

Muffy Koch has been active in trying to export this 'biosafety' system to other parts of the continent. Koch is particularly anxious African countries follow the South African model, which has facilitated the rapid introduction of GM crops, rather than The African Model Law developed by the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union - AU). Koch says The African Model Law is 'a poor working model, designed to impede rather than promote safe and useful technology. Countries choosing this model will end up with regulations that cannot be implemented and will effectively ban the use of all existing products of GM'.

However, South Africa's own biosafety regime is regarded by critics as weak. It has been described by environmental and development lawyers in South Africa as displaying a 'cynical disregard' for contemporary international and national environmental principles, as well as for the development imperatives of South Africa.

Koch has been a contributor to the UNEP-GEF Biosafety Capacity Building projects. She has been contracted to provide 'technical support' for the development of a biosafety manual for East African countries. She is also employed by the Southern Africa Regional Biosafety programme (SARB).

SARB was launched in 2000. It promotes in-country 'biosafety capacity building' as part of a regional 'biosafety initiative'. SARB is a sub-unit of a much larger USAID-funded project, Agricultural Biotechnology Support Program (ABSP), managed originally by the Michigan State University and more recently by Cornell (ABSP II). ABSP’s private sector partners have included Asgrow, Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred and DNA Plant Technology (DNAP). USAID has said SARB's objective is to provide the 'regulatory foundation to support field testing of genetically engineered products' (emphasis in original).

Mariam Mayet of the African Centre for Biosafety points to the influence of SARB on Malawi, a 'core target' country for SARB's programmes. Malawi has been amongst the least restrictive of southern African countries with regard to accepting GM food aid and at the height of the food aid debate in 2002 it introduced a controversial 'Biosafety Bill'. The Bill while referring to the issue of risks posed by GMOs to human health and the environment in its preamble, took no account of these issues in its operational provisions. Mayet, a lawyer who specialises in legislation on genetic engineering, describes the Bill as 'displaying a flagrant and contemptuous disregard for biosafety.'

Koch's involvement with SARB and UNEP, and still more her continuing regulatory involvement in South Africa, seems curiously at odds with her membership of the industry lobby group, Africabio, where she is in charge of education issues. Koch chairs the AfricaBio Educatio


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