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South Africa's lonely stance on GM crops

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Source: The Campaign.

South Africa's lonely stance on GM crops

October 15

news24.com

Johannesburg - An emotive regional debate on the safety of genetically modified food aid has thrown a spotlight on South Africa's stance on biotechnology, exposing a lonely but unwavering policy.

Diplomatic wranglings have overshadowed a food crisis threatening much of southern Africa, with countries in need of food aid first refusing to take GM maize, and then negotiating deals to make sure their own crops do not become contaminated.

But while Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and most prominently Zambia have all expressed great concern over even accepting GM crops, regional economic powerhouse South Africa is steaming ahead with an agenda of strong support for agricultural biotechnology that insiders say is here to stay.

South Africa is the only country in the 14-nation Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) to licence the production of transgenic crops, modified to include genetic components from other organisms that do the job of pesticides, protecting the plants from predation.

This year South Africa pioneered the planting of a modified variety of white maize, the region's staple food source.

While SADC officials struggle to find a co-ordinated regional response to agricultural biotechnology, experts see little chance of South Africa deviating from its lonely furrow.

"South Africa's stance in this regard has been so out of step with the rest of Africa, and I see it continuing," said Gillian Kerchoff of the anti-GM pressure group Safeage.

One source in the grain industry concurred, saying regional policies would eventually have to follow South Africa's lead. "GM products are here to stay. It is getting to be increasingly difficult to get GM-free products."

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Alone with research knowledge

The South African authorities say they are the only country in the SADC, which includes Mauritius, the Seychelles and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to have access to the necessary research information to make decisions on the safety of the crops.

"We have a regulatory process that examines genetically modified foods from a safety perspective," said Shadrack Moephuli, head of South Africa's Directorate of Genetic Resources.

"The other countries in SADC do not have the regulatory system to be able to determine whether the food is safe or not," he added.

He refused to be drawn on whether group discussions on GM crops would see more regional policy harmonisation, except to say that information would soon be more freely available.

Critics, however, say the government is in thrall to Western biotechnology companies keen to establish a product base in Africa.

"South Africa has always been in a position of a launch pad for the rest of Africa. That has just been made a lot more critical because of the crisis over food aid," Kerchoff said.

The rest of Africa operated very much on the precautionary principle, on the basis that the governments did not know the impact that the technology would have in the future, she added.

"South Africa similarly does not know... And yet they blithely go ahead with crops and imports."

Support from SA farmers

But farmers in South Africa have expressed their support for the crops. Between 10 and 15% of South Africa's maize crop is estimated to be grown from GM seeds that are modified to prevent infestation with insect pests, such as the crop-devastating stalk borer.

While maintaining a healthy respect for the future consequences of growing GM crops in a world where significant export markets, such as Europe and Japan, have come out against the technology, farmers see few problems with GM, said Christo Booyens of Senwes, South Africa's largest grain co-operative.

"At this point in time there is really nothing that one can put against genetically modified organisms," he said, adding that practically no farmers supplying the domestic market were averse to the use of biotechnology.

Gert Pretorius, chair of biotechnology giant Monsanto's board of directors in South Africa, is also a maize farmer and chair of grain co-operative NWK.

He says South African farmers are just more enlightened than their regional counterparts, a statement that opponents such as Safeage's Kerchoff reject.

"To an extent I am worried about our exports," Pretorius said. "But even though my seed costs are higher with GM, I am better off at the end of the day."

Opponents of companies like Monsanto are concerned that initially affordable seed prices will soon rise, and that cross-pollination will contaminate non-GM varieties with patented GM traits.

This was one fear voiced by Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, all of which negotiated deals with the World Food Programme to make sure all US-sourced maize donated for hunger relief, much of which is GM, is milled into flour to make sure local farmers cannot plant it.

"The danger is that once genetically engineered seeds are in the agricultural system there would be cross-pollination and other crops would be found with traces of the genetic modifications. Then the (companies) would claim ownership," Kerchoff said.

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