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PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE ON
26 February 2002
GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOOD: BRIEFING BY DEPARTMENTS OF HEALTH, ENVIRONMENTAL AFFAIRS AND TOURISM, AND AGRICULTURE
Chairperson: Ms Malumise (ANC) [Acting Chairperson]
Power point presentation by Dr van Rijssen
Power point presentation by Dr Mphoedi
Power point presentation by Dr Willemse
Ms Van Rijssen (Department of Health) gave a presentation, informing the committee about foods from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). She thereafter introduced Dr Mphoedi (Department of Agriculture), who is also Director of Genetic Resources and the Registrar of GMOs. Dr Mphoedi gave a presentation, which was followed by a presentation by Dr G. Willemse (Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism), who is also acting manager of Biodiversity Management, which includes Biosafety, and which deals with GMOs. A brief discussion ensued as a result of the committee meeting beginning way past the allotted time. The chairperson advised the committee that it is imperative the meetings begin precisely on time if in depth discussions are to be conducted at the end of the meeting.
Ms Van Rijssen (Department of Health) gave a presentation on foods from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). She thereafter introduced Dr Mphoedi (Department of Agriculture), who is also Director of Genetic Resources and the Registrar of GMOs. Dr Mphoedi gave a presentation, which was followed by a presentation by Dr G Willemse (Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism), who is also acting manager of Biodiversity Management, which includes Biosafety, and which deals with GMOs.
Ms Van Rijssen (Department of Health) outlined the different legislation dealing with GMOs, as well as the general principles of the Codex Alimentarius (codex is translated as standard, and alimentarius is translated as food). She explained the rigid standard of safety and risk assessment, as well as the South African labelling requirements for GMOs.
Dr Mphoedi (Department of Agriculture), also Director of Genetic Resources and the Registrar of GMOs advised the Committee on legislation behind GMO's (see document annexed).
Dr Willemse (Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism), also acting manager of Biodiversity Management, which includes Biosafety and deals with GMOs informed the Committee about the Cartagena protocol (see document annexed).
Dr R Rabinowitz (IFP) asked how long one has to keep testing before the effects of (genetically modified) GM food can be seen?
Dr Mphoedi responded that the Act requires the public to have access to a register in which all permits for GMOs are to be registered. These are available on the website.
Dr Rabinowitz wondered whether we are we not producing a negative trap, thereby going faster than we should in relation to GMOs? Should we understand a bit more on the topic before delving into GMOs, for example have more monitors, glean enough information first?
Dr Willemse responded that there is only a need for EIA assessment where GMO modification is done in South Africa, there is no regulation for release or use of GMO approved elsewhere. With regards to other countries putting a hold on GMOs, we need to look at it in context. For example, the European Union has a five-year moratorium on GMOs. This is only on paper. The normal approval process in the EU is five years, so effectively the EU is putting a moratorium on something which already has a moratorium on it. In effect they are playing a political game on GMOs which does not mean anything.
Secondly, what do you look for in imported foods to determine whether it is safe or not for consumption?
Dr Mphoedi explained that there are other issues which impact on this, for example, food availability. GM is one way to increase the yield of food, as floods and drought have a negative impact on yields.
Dr Rabinowitz asked whether they were concerned with seeds that are developed by a rural community bearing a defect, which is then modified by a large company? Who claims the rights to this seed? Has an environmental impact analysis been done?
Dr Jassat (ANC) asked why we do not go the route of 'no risk' and stick to the original seeds which are not genetically modified. What food approval assessment systems are in place?
Dr Willemse pointed out that with regard to GMOs, this is the basis of labelling. Article 18 sets out the different requirements for labelling. The idea is to put the choice of whether one wishes for an 'ordinary' product' or a 'GM' product on the consumer- the consumer must decide whether he wishes to take a risk. Dr Willemse gave the example of drinking too much water. This could lead to water poisoning. Similarly there is no such thing as food totally risk free.
Dr Willemse explained that there are specific guidelines under the Cartagena Protocol, which provide that there are prescribed risk assessments that are to be carried out on GMOs. These are contained in three annexes to the protocol, especially in relation to allergens.
With regards to the fear of creating a â€œFrankensteinâ€? produce terminating seed, Dr Jassat asked what the political debate is behind this?
Dr Willemse said that GMOs have other applications outside of food, especially in connection with the â€œterminator techniqueâ€?. Scientists would not allow the spread of a gene that is harmful in the first instance. The normal farmer's variety of seeds will always be available, they will all not be converted into GM seeds.
Ms C September (ANC) raised the issue of the risk attached to GM foods. Of particular concern was risk assessment, and whether we have the capacity to manage the scientific side of GMOs, thereby controlling it adequately.
Dr Willemse stated that one needs to keep in mind that the decision on control/ risk assessment will always be ours. We could determine our own capacity and allow what we can manage. We decide our own destiny.
Mr IM Cachalia (ANC) enquired about labelling regulation. If its existence is to give a choice to a consumer, why then are we allowing unsafe foods to be put out into the market? He stated that if there is an increased demand for food and a lack of technology available to rural population, why do we not prioritise the need for land over food production?
Ms Luthuli (ANC) was concerned about the risks, and enquired whether there would be any increase in the various forms of cancer as far as scientific Biodiversity is concerned.
Ms Dudley (ACDP) enquired about confidentiality clearance, and what that is concerned with.
With regards to the problem of allergenicity, are tests done on human beings?
Dr Willemse cited the examples of the Brazil nut and the butterflies. The one redeeming factor is that up until now, all the problems in the technique encountered with GM have shown up in the risk assessment phase. They have not reached the environment. Genetic modification was intended to increase the protein level in the Brazil nut. However in the risk assessment phase, an increase in the allergenic components showed up. As a result, the Brazil nut never reached the market. In all instances, where there is a problem, risk assessment is designed to pick it up, and it ends there.
As a result of the Committee meeting starting late, and insufficient time to raise all matters of concern, as well as answer all questions posed, the Chairperson stated that Members could address written questions to the panel, should they wish to do so.
The meeting was adjourned.
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