Professor Amman, Biotechnology Scientist, Doctor N H Obokor CEO AfricaBio, Kingston Mashingaidze Manager Agricultural Research Council, COREY Pickelsimer US Embassy

Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development

06 March 2012
Chairperson: Mr Sizani (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Portfolio Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries received briefings on biotechnology and the benefits that it could offer to South Africa. The United States Embassy speaker outlined the advantages of plant and modern agricultural technology and described the position in the United States, outlining issues around the safety of genetically modified food, how regulation and labeling applied in that country, the environmental benefits and economic benefits from using biotechnology, and giving a report on some of the current work around genetically engineered animals. He noted that three agencies regulated the industry, and suggested that regulation was adequate to deal with the issues. Examples of genetically modified products that were in use in the United States, and those banned, were given.  

Africa Bio noted the benefits that could be achieved from harnessing agricultural biotechnology in South Africa. Some challenges facing smallholder farmers included the traditional methods of farming, the small scale, and low productivity. Commercial farmers could benefit from adoption of new agricultural technologies and improved seeds. The damage due to attacks on cereal crops by pests were detailed, and the Bt Maize case study was outlined. Smallholder farmers could contribute to the national maize production by adopting more efficient mechanisms to optimise production. Professor Amman, a Biotechnology scientist, stated that there was still opposition to biotechnology, but unfortunately a balanced view was not always presented, some of the arguments were actually misleading. Europe was leading the way in imports of biotech products.

The Agricultural Research Council (ARC) noted that maize was a staple food in sub-Saharan Africa and most smallholder farmers used maize for food and as a cash resource. In South Africa, about 14 million people were food-insecure, and drought was the main factor limiting maize production. South Africa was ranked 30th in the list of drought-prone countries across the world. ARC was concentrating on development of drought tolerant white maize, through the Water-efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project. The drought-tolerant maize produced would be provided, free of royalties, to
smallholder farmers, hopefully increasing the size and stability of their yield, and leading to better household food security, income and livelihoods. It was expected that the hybrids could increase yields under drought conditions by up to 35%. There was ongoing testing, under regulated trials, with oversight from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

Members asked about the testing and production of modified animals, enquired as to the main benefit of
biotechnology methods for smallholder farmers, and why the figures for genetically modified products were lower. The last question was not answered to Members’ satisfaction. Members asked where the field trials on maize were being done, whether there was assistance from the private sector,
what research had been done on risks of biotechnology products, or side effects on humans, and enquired why consideration was not given to using plants that consumed more carbon dioxide, an asked if there had been testing on super-genes. Questions were also asked about the indicators for Africa Bio interventions, any language barriers in conveying information, and the reasons why Europe was importing, rather than growing its own produce.

Meeting report

Mr P Sizani (ANC) was elected as Acting Chairperson until Mr M Johnson (ANC), who had been delayed, could attend.

Overview of Agricultural Biotechnologies in the United States: American Embassy briefing
Mr Corey Pickelsimer, Agricultural Attache, American Embassy, gave a presentation on agricultural biotechnologies in the United States (US). Mr Pickelsimer’s presentation touched on regulation of plant biotechnology in the United States, and he noted that the potential risks posed by genetically engineered organisms were not fundamentally different from those posed by conventional products. He noted that regulation should be science-based, and oversight conducted on a case-by-case basis. Existing laws provided adequate authority on this issue.

He noted that three agencies attended to the coordination of US agencies that regulated biotechnology products. These were the United States Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration. He then described regulation under the coordinated framework, mentioning several products and their stages in implantation (see attached presentation for details).

He then moved on to deal with commercialisation of transgenic plant varieties in the United States, listing several products that had insect tolerance, herbicide tolerance, agronomic properties, and virus resistance and raising issues around product quality. There were three main genetically-engineered crops in the United States, namely, cotton, corn and soybeans. These products were given overall percentages in respect of their insect resistance, herbicide tolerance and stacked gene varieties. Cotton was awarded 90%, corn 88%, and soybeans 94%. The environmental benefits were described as reduction in pesticides, savings on fossil fuels, decreasing carbon emissions through no or reduced plowing, improved soil health, achieved through conserving soil and moisture by optimising the practice of no-tilling, increased birdlife and promotion of beneficial insects. He also noted that there were economic benefits in fuel savings, labour efficiency, herbicide and pesticide savings and increased yields.

He noted that commercialisation of corn was dependent on many factors, including successful conclusion of regulatory process. He noted that in respect of genetically engineered animal products, there would be additional labeling required only if the food was materially different from its traditional counterpart. Labelling issues would be evaluated and regulated by the Center for Food Safety and Nutrition. There were certain products in development, which included AA Salmon , on which the Food and Drug Administration had initiated public comment, and which was awaiting environmental assessment. Further issues still in development included GE Insects, involving release of mosquitos, disease resistance in chickens to avian influenza, and bovine encephasitis resistance.

Mr Pickelsimer also gave examples of genetically modified products that were in use in the United States and those that had been banned (see attached presentation). Finally, he presented statistics on South Africa’s agricultural productivity and the adoption of Biotech

Benefits of Agricultural Biotechnology in South Africa: Africa Bio briefing:
Dr Nompumelelo Obokoh, Chief Executive Officer, Africa Bio, gave a presentation around how South Africa could harness benefits of agricultural biotechnology in South Africa. She noted that many challenges were faced by poor farmers in South Africa, and biotechnology could improve production, and could address the problem of pests. Small holder farming in South Africa was characterised by traditionally low technology, and most farming was carried out in the small scale communal sector. There was therefore low agricultural productivity. Even commercial farmers could benefit from adoption of new agricultural technologies and improved seeds. There were areas in South Africa of high agricultural productivity, and this included the growing of maize by 9000 commercial farmers, who employed over 128 000 farm workers. It would be possible for smallholder farmers to contribute to the national maize production by adopting more efficient mechanisms to optimise production per unit area.

Dr Obokoh explained the meaning of biotechnology as the use of living organisms or their products to modify or improve production, or for the processing of products for the benefit of human beings. In the agricultural sector, this technology could play a significant role in the alleviation of hunger and poverty by enabling the production of more food, such as maize and soybean. Commercial farmers had, since 1998, adopted new agricultural technologies offering improved seeds (such as BT maize) leading to high agricultural productivity.

Dr Obokoh stated that farmers experienced severe yield losses, ranging between 5% and 70%, due to the African maize stem borer, busseola fusca. These pests could be controlled, in cereal crops, in a non-chemical, affordable and sustainable way, by using biotechnology methods rather than widespread use of pesticides, which would contribute to increased production.

Professor Amman, Biotechnology Scientist, noted that there was a principal difference between the procedures of genetic engineering, and those serving in nature for biological evolution. He explained that while a genetic engineer would pre-reflects on the alteration, and use the genetic engineering to verify its results, natural genetic variations were far more random and largely independent of an identified goal. After ten years of testing, genetically modified (GM) crops had been widely accepted.

He noted that there were several opponents of GM foods. Jane Rissler and her followers had called for a ban on GM crops, noting that irradiated varieties had not been tested for food safety. However, he pointed that there was not constant testing of about 70% of food products on the shelves, and the dangers of these crops were simply not known. He quoted, tongue-in-cheek, the statement that “compared to these foods, genetically modified good is about as
dangerous as a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.” Excellent repair mechanisms that were fully operational were reducing radiation damage considerably, and there had not yet been any correlation established, across the world, between radiation mutation and negative food safety.

Professor Amman noted that some e-coli outbreaks in Europe were linked directly to organic farming. He noted that religious groups, including Roman Catholic and Islam, were not opposed to biotechnology.

Agricultural Research Council briefing
Mr Kingston Mashingaidze, Manager, Agricultural Research Council, noted that maize was a staple food in sub-Saharan South Africa, where over 650 million people depended on it. It was also a staple food in South Africa, along with samp and other cereals, and smallholder farmers used maize for their own food and as a cash resource. He noted that about 14 million South Africans, or about 40% of the total population, was food-insecure. Drought was one of the main factors limiting maize production in Africa, and climate change would worsen the problem in future. This meant that drought- tolerant technology was particularly relevant. South Africa was the 30th-most drought-prone country in the world.

ARC was concentrating its efforts on the development of drought tolerant white maize. One of the important developments was the Water-efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project. This was a
public-private partnership to develop drought-tolerant white maize hybrids, which it was then intended to deploy, free of royalty requests, to smallholder farmers, This should result in increased yield stability, and protection and promotion of farmers’ investment in best management practice, as well as increased maize yields and production. All this would lead to increased household food security, increased income and improved livelihoods.

Agricultural Research Council (ARC) expected that, under
moderate drought, WEMA DT-hybrids could increase yields by 20% to 35%, when compared to 2008 commercial hybrids.

Mr Mashingaidze also added that Monsanto had donated the DT gene, which was a gene approved for commercial maize production in USA in 2011, royalty-free. This gene assisted plants in coping with drought stresses. It was undergoing testing in South Africa, under regulated trials. The testing was done under strict permit conditions, and regular inspections were conducted by Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF). He believed that South African farmers would benefit from the latest technology.

Mr M Johnson (ANC), who had by now resumed the Chair, pointed out that there legislation was intended to be tabled in Parliament, but had not yet been received.

Mr Sizani wanted to know whether the salmon referred to in the first presentation had been tested on humans.

Mr Pickelsimer responded that the environmental impact study on salmon was still awaited.

Mr Sizani asked about the main benefit of biotechnology methods for smallholder farmers.

Dr Oboker explained that the main benefit lay in increased production.

Mr Sizani asked for the relative benefits of using drought tolerant products and irrigation.

Mr A Trollip (DA) asked why the land area under genetically modified products appeared to be decreasing. He asked why genetically modified products would not be labeled. He further questioned whether weeds and insects became tolerant to such products.

Mr Pickelsimer stated that the genetically modified products were introduced in the year of drought, implying that less crops succeeded.

Mr Johnson and Mr Trollip did not feel that the explanation answered the question in full.

Mr S Abram (ANC) asked where in South Africa the field trials on the maize were being done, and asked if the ARC was getting any assistance from the private sector.

Mr Mashingaidze said ARC was receiving assistance from Monsanto.

Mr S Abram (ANC) asked Mr Pickelsimer whether any research was done on risks of biotechnology products. He also wanted more details about the process followed in the genetic engineering of animals.

Mr P Van Dalen (DA) wanted to know if there had been any studies being done on side-effects of genetically modified products to humans.

Mr van Dalen was interested as to why plants that could consume more carbon dioxide were not being grown.

Dr Oboker explained that field studies were being done, and mentioned that genetically modified food was not new in South Africa.

Ms A Steyn (DA) wanted to know if tests had been done on super genes and whether American institutions were doing any work with South Africa.  

Mr Pickelsimer said he was not aware of the stage that testing had reached.

A Member asked Dr Oboker how Africa Bio would decide upon the areas to be capacitated, and enquired about its relationship with AgriSA.

Dr Obokoh explained that Africa Bio worked from a database of identified farmers.

Ms N Phaliso (ANC) asked the speakers to give further details of the opposition that had been expressed to new technologies. She also wondered if there was any language barrier in bringing this information to poor communities. She wanted to know why Europe was not growing its own genetically modified organisms. Finally she queried what proportion of soya constituted the food basket.

Mr Mashingaidze said meetings were held in local languages. He also said that people who opposed the biotechnology project were often deliberately misleading communities.

Professor Amman said he was embarrassed by the question as to why Europe was not adopting genetically modified organisms.

Dr B Goqwana (ANC) asked if there had been any long-term studies on genetically modified organisms, and repeated earlier questions about the effects of biotech products on humans, particularly asking about the implications around DNA, and whether it was likely that genetically modified maize could help in the Centane area, where crops were prone to fungus.

Dr Obokoh assured the Committee that the products were safe for human consumption. This was illustrated by the fact that genetically modified maize had been tested in South Africa and no effects were reported.

Professor Amman and Mr Pickelsimer promised to respond to outstanding questions via e-mail.

The meeting was adjourned.

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