Genetically Modified Products: briefing by Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development

03 May 2010
Chairperson: Mr M Johnson (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries briefed the Committee on background information on biotechnology, the Genetically Modified Organisms Act, 1997, the status of GM crop adoption in South Africa and the status regarding trans-boundary movement of GMOs.
South Africa’s import and export procedures comply strictly with the Cartagena Protocol.   However, challenges exist where contracting parties to the Protocol are at different levels of implementation and do not yet have all the required procedures in place.  The DAFF would continue to engage its regulatory counterparts on technical issues in an attempt to address some of the identified challenges.

In discussion, Members raised several issues concerning the safety of GMOs, as well as problems with GM imports and exports.  They considered the role of the DAFF in promoting GMO systems to enhance food security in South Africa, and agreed it was necessary to engage society to eliminate suspicions and misconceptions about GMOs. 

The Committee reviewed its report on the Oversight Visit to Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal Provinces on but agreed to defer its adoption until its next meeting on Friday, May 7.This would enable Members to study all the recommendations and deal with each one individually, prior to considering the adoption of the report as a whole.

Meeting report

Genetically Modified Products: briefing by Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
Ms Chantal Arendse, Director: Biosafety, DAFF, pointed out that the National Biotechnology Strategy (2001) presented opportunities to increase agricultural production in a sustainable manner, in a country with limited arable land, as well as to produce nutritionally enhanced food, and the development of vaccines.  She warned, however, that GM technology was not the solution to every problem, and had to be used in combination with other sustainable technologies and existing agricultural practices. 

The SA regulatory landscape covered the Departments of Science & Technology, Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries, Environmental Affairs, Health, and Trade & Industry., and the GMO Act of 1997 was designed to ensure activities related to GMOs were carried out responsibly.   South Africa had fulfilled its international obligations by acceding to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2003, and had amended its own GMO Act to align with the provisions of the Protocol.

Genetically modified cotton, maize and soybean crops had been introduced in South Africa since 1997, and by 2009 represented 92-95% (cotton), 78% (maize) and 85% (soybean) of the total crops.  The cumulative economic benefits from introducing GM crops was estimated at $500 million over the past ten years.

South Africa’s import and export procedures comply strictly with the Cartagena Protocol.   However, challenges exist where contracting parties to the Protocol are at different levels of implementation and do not yet have all the required procedures in place.  The DAFF would continue to engage its regulatory counterparts on technical issues in an attempt to address some of the identified challenges.

The Chairperson commented that the overall objective of the GMO strategy should be to promote food security for the country.

Dr L Bosman (DA) said the briefing confirmed the tremendous benefits of GMOs.  Although legislation and the control processes were well established, a negative factor was that many people were still worried about the safety of GM food.

Ms M Mabuza (ANC) asked whether the fact that many children were developing stomach problems, was due to GMO.

Mr N du Toit (DA) said there had been a running battle with an NGO over the public’s right to information on GMOs, and asked if this situation would continue.

The chairperson asked why a problem had arisen over GM exports from South Africa to Kenya.

Dr Peter Thabete, Director General of DAFF, replied that GMOs were a highly controversial topic both locally and internationally.  Many groups were opposed to GMOs, but when confronted, did not have the facts to mount a credible argument.

In South Africa, the GMO “process” involved lodging applications, trials and tests (taking up to 10 years), checks and balances, and finally approval or rejection.   Issues of risk management were then addressed, involving the Department of Health (consumer health) and the dti (trading).

In terms of the GMO Act, all applications had to be public, and the public had the right to comment.  However, applications contained both confidential and non-confidential information.   The confidential element belonged to the applicant, and related to competitive scientific issues.  There was nothing “wrong” with the information; it was simply that the applicant would not want it to fall into the hands of competitors.

As far as stomach problems were concerned, he was not aware of any link with GMOs.   If any link were found, the Department of Health would advise.

The problem with GM maize imports to Kenya was the result of anti-lobby group activities in that country.  The South African exporter had followed the processes of the Protocol, and the maize had not been shipped until a permit had been issued stating that the consignment had been accepted by Kenya.

Ms Mabuza asked whether imported GM products could introduce diseases.  Ms Arendse replied that all imported foodstuffs carried bacteria, whether GM or not.

The chairperson commented that many “old generation” South Africans looked back on what they considered a healthy lifestyle, and had difficulty relating to the current situation.  Dr Thabete said South Africans had been consuming GMOs since 2002-03, and life expectancy had improved.

Dr Julian Jaftha, Genetic Resources, DAFF, said the court case regarding disclosure of GMO information involving the NGO Biowatch, had been complicated by the involvement of Monsanto.  However, the Department had never withheld non-confidential information.

Mr Eben Rademeyer, chief director, Plant Health & Inspection Services, DAFF, said South Africa’s regulatory landscape provided one of the best co-ordinated mechanisms for dealing with GMO issues, but the Kenyan situation illustrated the problems which could arise when there was conflict between the public and private sectors.

Ms Carter quoted at length from a document and video entitled “Seeds of Destruction” which focussed on the adverse effects on rats and mice when exposed to GMO products.  She also referred to personal experiences involving her own family which might have been caused by exposure to GMOs.  

Dr Jaftha replied that many GMO studies were populist in nature, and not subject to review by peers

Mr R N Cebekulu (IFP) asked for clarity on media reports that most countries export their GMO products to third world countries, while consuming only non-GMO products themselves.

Dr Thabete said the department had undertaken a study tour to the U.S. to get information on GMO issues, and had found that there was no segregation of GMO and non-GMO products.  Both were freely available in the local market.

He referred to the role of the department in respect of the 2010 World Cup, and pointed out that stringent measures had to be applied.  For instance, Canada had wanted to export meat to South Africa to cater for the increased demand, but as the department was not happy with their control systems, it had stipulated that only pre-cooked and frozen meat could be imported.

The chairperson said the committee needed to engage further on the issues which had been raised, even to the stage of conducting hearings.

Mr S Abram (ANC) referred to the impact of climate change, and its effect on food security.  He listed several developments in South African agriculture since the 1950s, such as the hybrid Kalahari Early Pearl for increased maize production; Bontsmara cattle, which today play a dominant role in meat production; artificial insemination to improve herds; and embryo transplants.   For this type of advancement to continue, research was necessary.   New cultivars had to be created to meet changing climatic conditions, or the population would perish.  He asked what sort of role the DAFF could play.

Dr Bosman said science had a major role to play.  The whole GMO process involved rigorous testing, and all negative effects were known.   This meant that people who consumed GM food knew what they were getting, while the same was not necessarily the case with non-GM food.
While South Africa was far ahead of most other countries, it had to ensure its legislation was in place, and development needed to be enhanced.   He pointed out that the introduction of GM maize had resulted in a threefold increase in output, and said GMO systems must be promoted in this country.

Ms R Nyalungu (ANC) asked to what extent GM products had invaded the local market.

Dr Jaftha said that apart from GM seeds, a lot of conventional seed varieties were still available for specific environments.  

Dr Thabete added that farmers would choose whether to use GM or non-GM seed, based on the cost implications.

Mr Abram asked what needed to be done to improve the productivity of non-commercial meat farmers.

Dr Jaftha said a pilot survey in Limpopo had been extended to other areas, and had shown that small farmers were not benefiting from the livestock development strategy.  There were no GM animals in the system at present, and the only benefits to livestock now were through GM vaccines.

The chairperson said that as policy-makers, it was important for members of the committee to learn as much as possible about GMOs.   It had become clear that there needed to be a follow-up on a number of issues, and this could involve organising a workshop.  He concluded by stating that because there were still suspicions about GMOs in the public domain, it was necessary to engage society on all the issues involved.

Committee Report on the Oversight Visit to Eastern Cape and Kwazulu-Natal Provinces
The Committee began its review of the report by looking for errors in the text, prior to considering its content. These focused largely on grammar and terminology, but also included the following other corrections.

The Chairperson asked for a proposal that the report be adopted, subject to all the amendments and corrections being made.

Ms Mabuza said she was prepared to move the adoption, provided the committee agreed to follow up on all the commitments that had been made to the communities involved. 

Dr Bosman said he felt the committee could adopt the report, but that it might be necessary to look into the recommendations and at a later stage get feedback on what impact they had made.  One also needed to look at all other reports that were still outstanding. This would form a separate stage in the process.

The Chairperson then suggested that as the committee was scheduled to meet again on May 7, the consideration of the recommendations should be held over until then, particularly as there were some issues that members might wish to engage on.

Ms Mabuza argued that the matter was urgent, as the Committee had made commitments which needed to be met. She felt the recommendations should be dealt with at the meeting, so that on Friday the issues could be finalized.

Dr Bosman said that if the Committee adopted the report, it meant that it was still awaiting work that was outstanding. He suggested that all the resolutions should be listed in a separate document, which would be a reference point for issues requiring follow-up by the committee.

Ms Mabuza referred to the resolution on page 25 of the report, in which Ms V Titi, the DDG from DAFF, was required to follow-up with the KZN provincial department on all resolutions pertaining to that province. She said that the Committee needed to find out from Ms Titi what she had achieved in this regard.

Ms Mabuza also asked whether a report had been received from the DDG, listing all the projects throughout the country that had collapsed, or that were about to collapse.   She would have liked this listing to be attached to the report under discussion, if it is to be presented to Parliament.

The chairperson said he was aware only of a report on the situation in KZN, and this should have been circulated to members of the Committee.

He concluded the meeting by asking Members to study all the recommendations contained in the report.  Each recommendation would be considered and discussed individually and decisions could be made on which recommendations to accept, and which to reject. Thereafter, the Committee would decide whether to adopt, or not adopt, the report as a whole.

The meeting was adjourned.


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