Genetically Modified Organisms; Sector Plan for Agriculture: briefing

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The aim of this report is to summarise the main events at the meeting and identify the key role players. This report is not a verbatim transcript of proceedings.Â

13 November 2001

Adv S. Holomisa

Documents handed out:
Genetically Modified Organisms Act, 1997 (Department of Agriculture)
Agriculture Sector Plan (Agri-SA)
GMO Safety - Department of Health Presentation on Genetically Modified Organisms (Department of Health)
Directorate Genetic Resources - Genetically Modified Organisms Act and its Regulations (Department of Agriculture)

The Committee was briefed by the Departments of Agriculture and of Health on genetically modified organisms. The briefing was followed by questions and discussion on the safety and risks of genetic modification. The Committee was then briefed by Agri-SA on the objective, process and broad picture of the Agriculture Sector Plan. The briefing was followed by a period of questions and discussion and the Committee agreed to have another briefing during the next term with all relevant parties included. The Chairperson thanked the members for their cooperation and the last meeting of the session was closed.

The Chairperson opened the meeting and welcomed everyone and introduced the presenters from the Departments of Agriculture and of Health. He stated that the Departments would first brief the Committee on the risk and safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the briefing by Agri-SA would take place when the presenters arrived.

Genetically Modified Organisms Act
Dr S. Moephuli, Registrar of the GMO Act at the Department of Agriculture, was first to present. He gave background information on the GMO Act. He stated that due to the fact that there were things that had to be put in place prior to implementation, the GMO Act had not been effectively implemented until 1 April 2000. He then mentioned the challenges facing South Africa such as limited success of the green revolution, decreasing fish stocks, growing population and increasing food security needs resulting from urban growth, increasing damage to the ecological foundation and the fact that only 16% of the land was arable. Satisfying the demands and challenges would require higher yields per unit of input and modern biotechnology could be used. Dr Moephuli noted that it was important to note the difference between GMOs and modern biotechnology. He then moved on to discuss control measures on GMOs. These measures were the GMO Act, National Environmental Management Act (NEMA), Biodiversity Bill, Cartagena Protocol on Biodiversity, National Biotechnology Strategy, Regulations on Labeling and International Undertaking on Genetic Resources. Elaborating on some of these measures, he stated that the Cartagena Protocol came under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In August, Cabinet approved the National Biotechnology Strategy for public consultation, so the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology were going around the country and attempting to solicit responses and input. The regulations on labeling were coming out of the Department of Health. The International Undertaking on Genetic Resources was a broad agreement in which the Department of Agriculture participated in actively. The Undertaking would regulate the movement of genetic resources between countries for the sake of food security.

He then proceeded to discuss the aims of the GMO Act, which were to provide for measures to promote the responsible development, production, use and application of GMOs, including importation, production, release and distribution was carried out in such a way as to limit the possible harmful consequences to the environment. He then explained the Bio-Safety Structures called for in the Act. He mentioned that the structures were the Executive Council, Registrar, Advisory Committee, Inspectors, Appeals and Regulations and elaborated on the Executive Council and Advisory Committee. He discussed the membership, powers and duties of the Executive Council, which would act on behalf of the Minister and touched on the Advisory Committee, which consisted of non-government employees. He then proceeded to discuss the concerns over GMOs. He grouped the concerns into three categories, which consisted of concern for farmers, human health and the environment. The response to the concerns was ensuring that risk assessment was done with science based information and a case by case approach and risk management was carried out with conditional permits, inspectors and monitoring and evaluation.

Dr Moephuli then outlined the process of regulation. The GMO decision making body would make use of the applicant's risk assessment, public input, independent scientific safety assessment, socio-economic impact and national needs in making decisions. In concluding his presentation, Dr Moephuli reiterated that to satisfy demand, higher yields were required per unit of input. Therefore, there was a need to determine how best to utilise modern biotechnology and he added that the National Biotechnology Strategy could provide the appropriate platform for such activity.

GMO Safety and Labeling
Ms W. Van Rijssen, Deputy Director of Food Control for the Department of Health began her presentation by defining modern biotechnology, also known as genetic modification, and gave examples of its use in food, the pharmaceutical industry and plants. She stated that biotechnology itself was not new and had been used by humans for a long time. She proceeded to touch on concerns over the safety of GMOs. She said that the standards from the Codex Alimentarius were incorporated into legislation, Codex Alimentaius being the international standard on food established by the WHO and FAO to protect the health of consumers. She touched on the model of risk analysis, which involved risk assessment, management and communication. She stated that legislation would come into play at the management stage. She proceeded to touch on the guidelines of Codex and the general principles. The concerns people expressed to Codex involved the overarching scientific principles that should be applied to the safety and nutritional assessment, long-term effects of genetic modification and the possibility of antibiotic resistance. She directed members to look at the website for Codex for their response to these issues.

She proceeded to discuss the draft labeling regulations. Although labeling could not replace the safety assessment and declaration, it would be an effective way to communicate the risks of genetically modified (GM) foods and allow consumers to make informed choices. Consultations on labeling included Portfolio Committee, interviews with the media and conferences. She added that the Codex Alimentarius was followed as far as possible and the definitions and framework were based on the Codex model. She then discussed elements of the draft regulation on labeling. The regulation would make it mandatory to label changes in nutritional value, natural toxins, method of preparation and storage, and the existence of allergens and animal or human genes. She then mentioned the Codex criteria for labeling, which required that labels should not be misleading, analytical methods should be validated and reliable, sampling methods should be reliable, alternative substantiation should be available and that verification and traceability should be possible. She said that the issues developing countries had with labeling were that labeling was ineffective due to illiteracy, selling of unpacked food and selling of food on the street.

Proceeding to the costs of labeling, she touched on the experiences in Australia, European Union and USA. In the Australian experience, prices increased 8 - 18% as a result of labeling requirements. She stated that labeling was weak because it was vague in that there was no certainty. Labeling would have three levels: mandatory labeling; labeling of foods that may contain GMOs; and voluntary labeling. Consumer choice was between GM foods and non-GM foods and she stated that the Department wanted to ensure that choice. In concluding her presentation, she summarised the challenges faced in labeling regulations.

The Chairperson opened the floor for discussion and appealed to members to be brief and concise in their comments and questions.
A member stated that it was clear that labeling had a communicative point, but had nothing to do with safety. If the government went into labeling legislation, he was concern that, given the current problems of food security, the legislation would affect food pricing. He asked if it was fair to affect the price of food in general by making labeling mandatory.

Ms Van Rijssen replied that the concern over pricing resonated with the Department's own concerns. She added that the aim of labeling was to channel for voluntary labeling and to avoid the big area while giving choice to those who want it.

The member then asked why the issue could not be left to the market in order to ensure that the clientele would pay for the increase in costs.

Ms Van Rijssen responded that the Department was proposing accredited bodies to come forward and be responsible for certifying non-GM foods in order to take the burden away from the government. She added that legislating labels would allow the government to audit what happened.

The Chairperson asked if the labels would merely be an addition to the current labels on products.

Ms Van Rijssen responded that labeling was more complicated and added that not all foods were currently labeled, such as fruits and vegetables.

Mr A. Botha (DP) thanked Dr Moephuli for a clear presentation and commented on the reference made to concerns over the dependence of poor farmers on multinational companies that could result from the introduction of GMOs into the agricultural sector. He stated that hybrid seeds, which had been around for over 50 years, were produced by a few companies but had no ill-effects on poor farmers. If hybrid seed introduction had not been harmful, he wanted Dr Moephuli to elaborate on why the introduction of GMOs would be detrimental to poor farmers. He also wanted to know if part of the Department's function was to educate the public about GMOs, because otherwise, it would take many years to settle the controversy over GMOs.

Dr Moephuli replied that, the Department of Agriculture, together with the Department of Health, was putting together a communication strategy and had started implementing it. It would be part of the Department's responsibility to educate farmers on GMO issues and the Department was attempting to fulfill this responsibility. Also, GMO companies should provide farmers with all the information they would need to handle and treat GM seeds. The GMO Act was introduced only in April 2000, so the permits being issued were trial permits, with only one commercial permit being issues so far. As for hybrid seeds, he agreed that their introduction had not adversely affected farmers, but stated that the concern over GMOs was different. The patenting of living organisms and denying others access made the GMO issue different. He added that the patenting issue was something many countries were grappling with.

Dr R. Schoeman (ANC) commended the presentations for being unemotional and rational. He commented that the organic food industry had recently gained momentum and asked if the Department of Health monitored the food labeled organic. If organic food labeling was not monitored, he wanted to know why emphasis was now being put on labeling of GM foods. He further commented on the impact of GMOs on the chemical industry and increases in food production in developing countries. He stated that developing countries were becoming battlefields for the relevant companies and he added that the agricultural sector from the developed countries did not want developing countries to succeed with GM.

Ms Van Rijssen replied that organics were the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture and deferred the question to Dr Moephuli.

Dr Moephuli replied that the issue had to be looked at carefully. In tropical climates, it would be difficult to produce organic foods. It might be easier and cheaper, but he doubted that it would be sustainable. Referring to the comment on the impact of GM on the chemical industry, he stated that countries that attacked GM probably had a significant petrochemical industry and gave the example of Ethiopia.

Mr Botha asked about drought resistant grass and wanted to know the possibilities of contamination from the grass. He also wanted to know if there were any penalties in place. He further asked for a clear answer on exactly what the implications of GMOs were.

Dr Moephuli replied that the drought resistant grass experiments were terminated at the laboratory stage because the risk of contamination was deemed too great. The proposal on the drought resistant grass was rejected, but it could be reconsidered if the technique was used on a plant with lesser risks of contamination.

Mr J. Ardense (ANC) commented that fresh produce had labels to indicate the origins. He asked why indicating whether or not they were genetically modified to inform the public should cause such a significant increase in price. He said that he remained unconvinced on the inevitability of price increases. He also commented that labeling should be mandatory because voluntary labeling would never work. He said that GM was being tried in communities and asked how the community was being informed and added that notifying communities in the newspaper was not enough.

Ms Van Rijssen responded by referring to the Australian study, which determined that GMO labeling requirements lead to a price increase of 8 - 18%. Labeling would require the ability to substantiate the claim and safety assessments would have to be done prior to the sale of the product. As opposed to merely writing on the packaging, labeling would entail proving what was inside the product and the expenses incurred would be an added cost.

Dr Moephuli, referring to the question on informing communities, stated that the Department fulfilled the requirements of the legislation by putting notices in the newspaper and the government Gazette.

Mr B. Radebe (ANC) stated that the use of GMOs was a natural process and asked what the Department was doing to ensure people's fears were alleviated.

Dr Moephuli stated that scare tactics used by the media added to the public's fears of GMOs. He said that when the media had been contacted about their reporting, they claimed that they did not know the GMO Act existed. When the Department presented the issue it did not get media attention while the scare tactics sold papers. He stated that this was a concern for the Department as well.

The Chairperson stated that the responses raised more questions, but there was no time to continue with the discussion. He commented that if there were risks associated with GMOs, preventative measures would be necessary. He suggested that, for next year, the Executive Council or Advisory Committee set up under the Bio-Safety Structures required by the GMO Act, along with other interested parties, should be invited to brief the Committee on the progress made. He concluded the discussion by thanking the presenters.

Agriculture Sector Plan
The Chairperson introduced the delegation from Agri-South Africa, one of the bodies set up to advise the President. Agri-SA had previously met with study groups and it was felt that it would be better for them to give a briefing to the Committee as a whole. The Agriculture Sector Plan they would present to the Committee was part of the advisory report they submitted to the President.

Mr L. Bosman, Deputy President of Agri-SA, began the presentation and welcomed the opportunity to address the Committee. He introduced the members of his delegation, Mr Pienaar, who would provide background information and Mr Raath, who would elaborate on the plan further. He said that the agriculture sector was very important and added that neither economic improvement nor rural development could take place without growth in the agricultural sector. The President's advisory group looked for ways to increase the viability of agriculture because there was concern over the decreasing financial viability of the sector. He stated that the advisory group worked together with other entities in devising the plan. The plan involved stakeholders and had the objective of creating a viable sector that could compete at the international level. He stated that the framework had been put together and added that the finer details would be worked out in implementation.

Mr J. Pienaar, Director of Macro Economics and Trade at the South African Agricultural Union, presented on what had transpired since the announcement of the plan by the President. He traced the Strategic Plan for South African Development through the President's State of the Nation Address at the opening of Parliament in 1999, 2000 and 2001. He mentioned the list of specific issues mentioned by the President. The President's request was summarised as the need for a higher growth path, increasing competitiveness and efficiency, raising employment levels and reducing persistent poverty and inequality. These were the parameters used by the Presidential Working Group in developing the Agriculture Sector Plan. He added that the Address of 2001, in particular, set the scene for the Agriculture Sector Plan by providing the background for the agricultural strategic plan.

He then proceeded to outline the actions taken in 2001: the Presidential Working Group met in March; information was presented to the President; and the President requested that the different role players identify a common strategy that would provide enough focus and bring about unity and growth to the sector. The next issue Mr Pienaar dealt with was the Strategic Plan for South African Development. The process of the plan included consultation with a wide range of stakeholders and strategic partners such as NAFU, Agri-SA and NDA. There was a need to amalgamate a range of objectives such as creating a framework to guide policy; creating a common vision; fostering investor confidence; furthering empowerment processes and programmes; improving global competitiveness, growth and profitability; and ensuring sustainable development.

He stated that they decided to aim at sustained profitable participation by all stakeholders, recognising the need to maintain and increase commercial production, to build international competitiveness and to address the historical legacies and biases that resulted in skewed access and representation. He added that aspects to be done by the agricultural family would obviously constitute the core strategies but so-called supporting strategies would be needed, which would obviously hinge on the support of other government cluster departments and industries. In conclusion, he outlined the way forward by listing initiatives such as the strategic plan, detailed action plans, establishing a permanent structure for strategic partners, involving other stakeholders and linking the outcome being sought to the President's request. He concluded his segment of the presentation by defining agriculture as all activities relating to agricultural input provision, farming and processing and distribution activities that added value to farm products.

Mr J. Raath, Executive Director of Agri-SA, continued the presentation by providing more information on the Agricultural Sector Plan. He stated that due to the nature and stage of the process, the Agriculture Sector Plan document could not be distributed, so he would talk about the broad parameters of the plan. He outlined the participants in the process. He stated that the process should bridge gaps and solve conflicts and improve access and participation as a key point of departure. The point of departure, according to Mr Raath, was that current participants should not be marginalised, new participants would need justifiable support and also that the process had to be sustainable. The challenges, he pointed out, were the things that hampered the process. He said that effort went into the value system to make the framework more acceptable, so competitiveness was the key. However, it would not be fair to bring in new participants into a sector that was not growing, so a broad three-pronged approach would be used to incorporate participation, competitiveness and sustainability. He outlined the process to be made up of consultative inputs, the task team and workshop. The forthcoming programme included law and order and complementary strategy; vision on labour and a code of conduct; land issues; farmer development; infrastructure investment, which was a priority for the plan; sustainability of resources; and technological development programmes. He stated that the structure was there to get the job done and concluded by stating that the right energy was out there to move the process forward.

The Chairperson stated that his understanding was that emphasis was on the state and parastatals and asked what role was played by the private financial institutions.

Mr Raath replied that, although not part of the formal process, there was a workshop especially for banks, key movers and shakers in the banking sector.

Mr Mudau (ANC) asked what the objective was in presenting a plan if the final document still had to be tabled before the President. He also wanted to know what role the Portfolio Committee would play after the document was finalised and if the Committee would be allowed to give input and what value would be placed upon the Committee's input.

The Chairperson stated that Agri-SA had briefed the study groups, so they were invited to brief the Committee as a whole on how the process was unfolding.

Mr Bosman reiterated that the document was not yet available and added that they were informing the Committee of progress with the process in order to keep role players involved.

The Chairperson asked for a response on whether the document would come to the Committee.

Mr Raath stated that the sequencing of the process was different from what was desired. It had been hoped that the document would be published by now. He said that the document was a living document that would drive the three issues of participation, profitability and sustainability.

Mr S. Abram (UDM) congratulated the private sector parties. With Agri-SA being one of the most representative bodies, he asked if the Transvaal Agricultural Union (TAU) was involved or gave input. He stated that the Chairperson had inquired about the financial sector and followed up by asking if other types of assistance programmes would be available to farmers to complement what was already in place. He asked Mr Bosman, if he was involved with the OTK cooperative, which was involved in the discussion, and also wanted to know if there were any OTK plans he was aware of to empower historically disadvantaged South Africans (HDSA).

Mr Bosman replied that the TAU was not involved in the development of the plan. The plan was started in the Presidential Working Group and the TAU was not part of the Working Group. He added that the TAU was minor and their influence was not great. As for financing, he replied that it was important to get them involved in capacity building and land reform issues. He said that other financial institutions would have to be involved and added that they were interested in creating a “development desk� to raise funds from the outside world. On the OTK question, he responded that the OTK was a private company. He said that the OTK had cut down on some activities such as feedlots for they were not profitable. The Feedlot sector was not in their capacity, so there could be the possibility of capacitating new entrants.

Mr G. Bhengu (IFP) agreed that the process should be driven by industry instead of the government. He asked what mechanisms were in place to implement this programme and open up the sector so that historically disadvantaged people could benefit from inside knowledge because they would otherwise not be able to make it.

Mr Pienaar responded that participation was the key to the process. He added that much time was spent on the issue and they came up with a comprehensive range of measures to ensure fair access to participate.

Mr Raath added that, in rural development, thinking in the last twenty years had changed to move away from subsidised loans and he agreed that it was necessary to find ingenious ways of ensuring equity and also agreed that soft loans would have to play a role.

Dr R. Schoeman (ANC) stated that all were in agreement and added that, if there were no successes in agriculture and land reform, the nation would not succeed. Therefore, the plan was the key to success. He commented that political partnerships were also needed. He stated that the Portfolio Committee should be actively involved because success of the plan was dependant on implementation. The Committee should buy into the process and be informed of progress on a regular basis. He also said that agriculture was not limited to South Africa and asked if there was any involvement or input from countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The Chairperson replied that part of the Committee's work was to monitor the Executive. The President had set up the Working Group to advise him. While the Committee member might be keen to get involved, there were certain things that the Executive had to do and the Committee could get involved only after the plan had been approved by the President and published.

Mr Raath agreed with Dr Schoeman's suggestion that, as the plan progressed, a lively interaction would be good for the process. He added that the mechanisms of government and Parliament were for the Whips to manage, but regular interaction with the Committee was desirable.

Mr Pienaar added that SADC countries were involved and commented that, because it was deemed important, a section had been fit into the plan on international trade. Therefore, the plan dealt with trans-national and trans-boundary relationships extensively.

Mr Raath stated that, within SADC, there was the SACAU, a private confederate on agriculture. He added that South Africa would no doubt be confronted by its neighbours on the plan.

A Committee member stated that Agri-SA planned on specific issues of land reform, farmer development and land claims and what was hampering implementation. She commented that there was no mention of speeding up the processing of land claims and asked for clarity on the partnerships formed to further farmer development and water use in agriculture.

Mr Raath stated that there was no plan at Agri-SA, but affiliates got involved in partnerships. He stated that service delivery problems were in the decision-making process and at the delivery level. Responding to the inquiry about water use, he agreed that water could be better used. There was a need for initiative and there were attempts made, but as far as irrigation was concerned, there was untapped potential.

The Chairperson suggested that once the Agriculture Sector Plan was adopted, Agri-SA should return to the Committee to inform members on what contributions were made.

A Committee member reiterated the participatory focus of the process and added that it needed to be stretched into SADC. He asked what emphasis was put on value adding and noted that there was potential of the unification of farmer support in involving SADC.

Mr Pienaar stated that the possibilities for horizontal expansion were limited and realised the need for the sharing of information and technology within SADC countries in order to improve the region as a whole and become more competitive.

Mr Raath stated that resources were available and there was desire in neighbouring countries, but the political atmosphere was not right in some neighbouring countries. He added that the priorities of the New Africa Initiative in prioritising governance were the key in improving the atmosphere.

Mr D. Maluleke (DP) asked where the majority of TAU members were concentrated and if there was any way to influence them to get involved.

Mr Bosman replied that the situation with the TAU was unfortunate and could not be avoided. The TAU was largely concentrated in the North East region. He stated that the trend was realism and working for the country and added that realism would benefit the broader picture.

Mr Raath added that there was also the reality of freedom of association. He stated that, at this point in time, things were best this way. He stated that the view of the TAU was a view that needed to be voiced, and would not have been beneficial if the views were blocked by influencing the TAU to join the process. The TAU should be seen as part of South African reality and not as an enemy.

Mr M. Maphalala (ANC) appreciated the attitude of Agri-SA towards government and the initiatives they had taken in the agricultural sector. He stated that further briefing on the issues by all relevant parties would be valuable. He observed that there was no mention of the involvement of labour in the process and commented that a plan for the development of labour should be part of sustainability.

Mr Raath replied that there was a shared vision on labour and added that, at the next level of the process, opportunity would be created for interrogating the plan from a labour perspective. He stated that the creation of the plan was created with labour considerations and there was no fear of the interaction with labour.

The Chairperson asked what the view of Agri-SA was on the joint briefing suggested by Mr Maphalala.

Mr Bosman replied that all participants were involved in the process and there was no objection to a joint briefing.

Mr Pienaar stated that there were four Presidential Working Groups, with one of them dealing with labour, and it was up to the President to decide when and how he wanted the various bodies to interact.

Mr Raath responded that there was no objection but asked what agenda would be formulated to bring together all the relevant parties.

The Chairperson stated that the joint briefing could be planned for early next year. He commended Agri-SA for the important and fruitful presentation and added that it was encouraging to notice the commitment of Agri-SA to making sure government came up with policies that worked for all South Africans.

Mr Bosman said that the opportunity to brief the Committee was welcomed and added that the participation of the Committee would be welcomed.

The Chairperson, having closed the discussion on the Agri-SA presentations, proceeded to resolve in-house matters. He mentioned the Department workshop and Land Tenure Conference. He stated that the draft programme was not yet complete because not all the necessary information was yet available. He also touched on the provincial tour proposed to take place during constituency week in the next term. He thanked members for their work over the year and said that the Committee members had applied their minds instead of rubber-stamping and did justice to the Bills received on time. He wished members a wonderful recess and work in their Constituencies.

Mr Botha thanked the Chairperson for the manner in which he conducted the meetings and expressed appreciation of the Committee staff.

The meeting was adjourned.

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