Genetically Modified Food; Dow Chemical GM maize variety DAS-40278-9: input by Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries; Science & Technology; Health; Trade & Industry Departments

Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development

13 September 2013
Chairperson: Mr M Johnson (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Portfolio Committees on Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; Health; Rural Development And Land Reform; and Science And Technology met jointly for a briefing by relevant departments on their roles in the administration, utilisation and management of Genetically Modified Food in South Africa. The briefing by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries was to include informing the Committee on the decision-making process for Genetically Modified Organism permits in South Africa including Dow Chemical's GM Maize Variety DAS-40278-9.

The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries informed the Committees that there was an advisory committee in place to provide scientific advice on genetically modified organisms. Decisions were taken by the Executive Council, on which a number of government departments were represented. South Africa was a party to the international Cartagena Protocol. There were three categories of applications for genetic modification: general release, commodity clearance and contained use. The majority of projects related to developing crops that were tolerant of herbicides and insect resistant. Imports of genetically modified organisms were only considered where mutually approved procedures had been followed.

The Department of Science and Technology was responsible for evaluating the safety of biotechnology, especially in the cultivation of food. The Department was satisfied that the use of biotechnology was no more dangerous than conventional cultivation methods.

The Department of Health had a focus on nutrition for children. The sale of harmful substances was forbidden. The guidelines of the Codex Alimentarius Commission were used to determine standards. The Department monitored acceptable daily intake levels and residue levels. Test showed that these levels were within the safety limits.

The Department of Trade and Industry reported that the safety of consumers was monitored by the National Consumer Commission. The policy on labelling was that a product containing less than 1% of genetically modified organisms could be labelled as being free of such substances, as any traces might be due to contamination. Where there was a content of 5% or more, it was mandatory to publish this on the label. Between these two thresholds, it was up to the discretion of the manufacturer to put this on the label or not.

Members raised questions and comments. They felt that the current system of advertising applications for importing GMOs was not reaching the majority of the population. The backlog in processing applications should not result in risky short-cuts being taken. Members were concerned that in no other country was there such a high incidence of its staple crop being genetically modified. Members echoed the concerns over safety expressed in other countries. All products should be labelled regarding their genetically modified status so that consumers could make informed choices. The impact of labelling costs on food prices. Members were also concerned about the possibility of dumping on the South African market. There was an opinion that genetically modified maize might be leading to obesity in the poorer sectors of the community who depended on this basic food. The role of multi-national companies was also queried, as they seemed to have the advantage over local companies.

The meeting was attended by a number of non-government organisations, who had to be asked to refrain from applauding some of the points being made lest their opinions unfairly influence Members. Public hearings would be held at a later date where they could express their concerns.

Meeting report

The Chairperson noted apologies from the Directors-General of the Departments of Rural Development and Land Reform as well as Health (DoH). He gave the background to the meeting. He noted that the new Director-General of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) would be appointed on 1 October 2013.

Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) briefing
Dr Botlhe Modisane, DAFF Acting Deputy Director General: Agricultural Production, Health and Food Safety, introduced the presentation.

Dr Julian Jaftha, DAFF Chief Director: Plant Products and Health, said that the Act governing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) was the GMO Act of 1997, which had been amended in 2010. The objective of the Act was to limit any negative impact on the environment. It also provided for risk management. Many Departments were involved in the process. The amended Act even made provision for the Department of Arts and Culture to be involved due to the possible social impact of GMO. DAFF was the custodian of the Act, and for the international Cartagena Protocol. The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) was the national focal point. This protocol set the rules to be followed regarding GMO. The protocol referred to living modified organisms (LMO), and this was seen to be synonymous with GMO. DEA was responsible for biodiversity. The regulatory framework was comprehensive, and assisted in achieving the objectives of the Act.

Dr Jaftha said that there was an advisory committee of ten scientists, but an additional pool was available to assist with recommendations. This committee considered applications, and the Executive Council, based on recommendations from their Departments, would accept or reject an application. Any applicant could lodge an appeal to the Minister. The length of the evaluation process was prescribed in the Act. A wide range of scientific expertise was represented. The Act provided for all GMO, and this included certain vaccines.

Dr Jaftha expanded that the Executive Council was the decision-making body. This was appointed by the Minister, and eight Departments were represented together with the Chairperson of the advisory committee. The Council had to be competent to advise on the applications. Decisions of the council were based on consensus, which was not always easy to achieve. Without consensus, any application would be declined. The Council made the minutes of its meetings publicly available although confidential aspects were withheld.

Dr Jaftha explained that there were three categories of GMO. The first was the general release category, even though there was still some form of regulation applicable. There were four GMO events relating to maize production. Areas of application were herbicide tolerance and insecticide tolerance. There were often references to other products, but these were the only approved substances. The second category was commodity clearance. These substances could be imported, but went directly into the commercial chain and could not be planted. There were a number of ongoing field trials. Tuberculosis and HIV were some of the target diseases for vaccine development. Import and export still had to be regulated in terms of the Act. The third category was contained use, and this applied to substances used in laboratories.

Dr Jaftha said that one of the concerns was around a commodity clearance application related to maize. This had been received from Dow AgroSciences company. Only food and feed safety data was considered in such an application and not environmental factors. A South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) standard had been developed. Commodity imports were also important to ensure that South Africa had access to other markets, as there was a risk of asynchronism with the regulations of trading partners. He used trade with Argentina as an example. Not all the events included in a consignment might be mutually approved, and this would prevent imports from that country.

Dr Jaftha returned to the application from Dow. It referred to resistance to a specific herbicide, known as 24D. This would not affect the growth of the maize. A public notice had been placed in national newspapers on 4 March 2013. He presented a copy of the notice, pointing out to Members the information that was provided. No public comment had been received on this notice, but there had been an application in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

The Chairperson commented on the matter of food labelling. This was also relevant in this context, as it touched on the traceability of food content.

Department of Science and Technology (DST) briefing
Mr Ben Durham, DST Chief Director: Biotechnology and Health Innovation, Department of Science and Technology, briefed Members on the National Strategy. He described the role played by DST in GMO foodstuffs. He was the vice-chair of the Executive Council. The DST focus was on the biotech strategy, safety and competencies, and social considerations. Their perspective on labels was that they did promote awareness. Costs needed to be minimised, and inappropriate impacts avoided. There were strategies to prevent co-mingling. Strategic bioscience safety projects were supported. Research had been supported already to the tune of more than R7 million, including studies on the effects on maize, anthropods and crop residues. Refuse bag strategy had been researched to study insect resistance.

Mr Durham said that there had been an awareness programme. This provided a number of activities to promote awareness, including training on what biotechnology was. Some critical sessions had been held. One of the issues was that the language of scientists was often inaccessible to the public, and scientists were trained in making themselves understandable to the layman. A second public awareness survey was soon to be conducted.

Mr Durham concluded that biotechnology was no more dangerous than conventional plant breeding technology.

Department of Health (DoH) briefing
Ms Mandisa Hela, Chief Director, DoH, introduced the presentation before handing over to an expert.

Ms Penny Campbell, Acting Director: Food Control, DoH, said that the Health Act of 2003 endeavoured to protect the health of the population. The Foodstuffs, Cosmetics & Disinfectants Act of 1972, recently amended, forbade the sale of such substances which could be harmful to health.

Ms Campbell said that maize meal and bread flour were fortified by micro nutrients. The focus was specifically on the nutrition of children. The World Health Organisation (WHO) had defined food safety. Food must not cause harm. DoH served on the GMO Executive Council. Considerations included toxicity of foodstuffs and possible allergens. Risk management was based on the guidelines of the Codex Alimentarius commission, which was established by the WHO. The mandate of the commission was to protect the health of consumers and to promote trade. South Africa was a member. GMO in South Africa adhered to these guidelines.

Ms Campbell said that the properties of resistance to and tolerance of pesticides and herbicides might encourage farmers to overuse such substances. DoH needed to look at what an acceptable human daily intake (ADI) would be. An exposure assessment would be conducted, bearing in mind food consumption patterns in the country. Maximum residue levels (MRL) were published as an amendment to regulations.

Ms Campbell described how provinces had been asked to take samples of maize. The focus was on testing for Glyphosate, the MRL level for which was 2mg/kg. All the samples were found to be compliant with regulations.

Department of Trade and Industries (dti) briefing
Mr Andisa Potwana, dti Director: Consumer & Competition Law & Policy, said that the Consumer Protection Act dealt with product labelling. The Minister had the power to require products to be labelled, and the three main approved events by the GMO Council were listed. These related to the production of maize, cotton and soya. Canola oil had never been approved for production. The enforcement agency was the National Consumer Commission (NCC). This Commission had problems in enforcing the regulations, and had to be assisted by DST. It was found that enforcement would be difficult to impossible. At the time that the products were already on the shelf there were no longer living organisms present. The regulation had to be amended.

Mr Potwana said that a global trend was to allow for the accidental contamination of foods. All goods containing less than 1% of GMO material could be labelled as GMO free. Anything above 5% must be labelled as containing GMO. Considerations in this included preventing too much interference in trade. Costs were also a concern. If everything had to be tested and labelled at the lower threshold, there would be cost implications. The dti was aware of the suggestion that suppliers carry these costs. The threshold of 1% would allow for accidental contamination.

Mr Potwana said that regulations were being finalised. This was a highly contentious issue, and inputs were being received regularly. There was a question of whether all or only specified foods should be labelled. The 5% threshold for compulsory labelling could be reduced to 1%, as was the case in some countries. GMO labelling regulations should be clear and enforceable. He introduced an official from the NCC.

The Chairperson said that it had been an oversight not to invite DEA. The importance of collaboration had to be emphasised. He summarised the roles played by the different departments. It was revealing to hear that 72% of the maize crop was genetically modified. Regulations would be tricky, even for Members of Parliament. It was often the case that regulations were left up to Departments to draft as they wished, but the approval of these should be the role of Parliament. Members heard later about the regulations without being a party to their approval. The Executive briefed Parliament. A process was still needed to conduct public hearings where all organisations could represent their views, but for today it would only be the Departments briefing Members. All were welcome to listen, but non-government organisations (NGO) could only observe this day's proceedings.

Mr N Ngcobo (ANC), Chairperson, Portfolio Committee on Science and Technology, took the Chair for the discussion.

Ms A Steyn (DA) noted that DAFF had mentioned that after the publication of notices on the Dow matter there had been no comments. She asked if this was the tendency, and if the notice period of one month was too short. If a GMO was conditionally approved, it could be retracted. She asked how many cases there were such approval had indeed been retracted.

Dr Jaftha said that even after the release of a general commodity release, there was still a requirement for reporting. This enabled the post-market analysis that was required. This was what was meant by a conditional general release. There had not been an instance where a general release had to be retracted due to new, contrary, scientific evidence. The European Food Safety Authority had recently considered new evidence in the case of B11, but found the product still to be safe.

Ms Steyn addressed DST and the dti specifically. The labelling approach should be careful. The question was to all Departments. There had been a scandal over meat labelling, and Members had been told that quantities of substances could not be tested. If this could not be regulated it would be futile to introduce such regulations.

Ms Steyn said that at one stage DAFF had been very far behind on the registration process. She was still receiving queries relating to the delays in the process. She asked how sure DAFF was that it was not neglecting quality in the interests of addressing the backlogs. She wanted to know from DoH who else would required to conduct residue testing, such as the millers buying maize products, of if the DoH would conduct random tests.

Mr Modisane said that the backlog had been reduced. He had been told that the backlogs in some of the fields of disease research had been addressed.

Ms Steyn asked the dti what benefit there was for labelling if this could not be tested. On the appropriate fees, she asked what it was used for. This could be to cover the tests or for research. South Africa was reported as being the only country to allow GMO modification on a staple crop. She asked why this statement appeared in the presentation.

Dr Jaftha said that there were prescribed fees for the different categories of application. These were reviewed annually.

Mr R Cebekhulu (IFP) said that food security was the buzzword. The use of GMO would contribute to this. Most European countries had banned GMO foodstuffs, but Members were being told that these substances were safe both for consumption and for replanting. These substances were supplied mainly to African countries. Kenya and Zimbabwe had destroyed their crops of GMO maize due to safety concerns. These crops were growing, and were cross-pollinating thanks to the bees. He asked what affect these substances would have on the insects carrying the pollen. He understood that in most First World countries every product was fully labelled in order to give consumers the choice of what they would be eating. He had read a book written by Jeffrey Smith which demonstrated how the media had been manipulated to glorify GMO products. The results were that people were badly affected. The producers had been challenged in some cases. If one went further, even in a supposed Third World country like South Africa, consumers should be sensitised. He asked who food security would be meant for if there were no more consumers due to the negative side effects. He had noticed that maize was put forward as the sole crop targeted for GMO. This was used mainly by the poorest levels of society. Maize was used both for solid and liquid foods. The poor should not be the dustbin of the country.

Ms M Phaliso (ANC) noted that no comments had been submitted on the advertisement distributed to Members. Most people did not have access to national newspapers, and were dependent on radio or television coverage. There had been no public hearings on this issue. This should have happened so that people would know that GMO existed, and the good and bad effects could be described. Other countries rejected these products. She asked why South Africa was accepting these products. She asked if this was a country for dumping, especially in the light of the recent controversy over poultry imports. It was very important to see foodstuffs on the shop shelves being clearly labelled. The consumer had a right to choose. She noted how young people were more obese than in the past, and this could be the result of consumption of GMO products. Maize was the staple food of the majority of South Africans. The poor people survived on porridge derived from maize. She could not imagine how much poison was being consumed. The people needed to know what this was all about.

The Chairperson acknowledged the applause being given by guests. He urged them to refrain, as this was seen as a form of participation.

Mr Ngcobo said that the applause could be seen as a form of lobbying, and asked guests to desist.

Mr Durham said that the United States of America had had GMO commercially available for several years. South Africa was not a dumping ground. There was a robust regulatory system, which was internationally recognised. Standards were stringent, and this acted against locally produced GMO. The cost burden was that much more for local players. A by-product was that the better resourced multi-national companies were better positioned to operate, but were subject to the stringent standards set.

Dr Jaftha said that a response had been provided to Parliament when Kenya had outlawed GMO products. It was sometimes difficult to follow developments. There was often an absence of regulatory frameworks. DAFF had collaborated with a number of African neighbours. Field trials were being conducted in a number of countries.

Ms J Kloppers-Lourens (DA) asked how many chairs had been allocated at the universities. She asked what the costs of labelling were. She asked for some elaboration on what was meant by 'inappropriate impacts'. She asked what the roles of consumer councils were in promoting awareness. She was unable to read the cartoon contained in the presentation of DAFF, and noted that this was a powerful communication tool.

Mr Durham said that DST had no specific chairs for biosafety. There were numerous chairs for biotechnology. The reason was the creation of the biosafety platform, which would provide advice in this regard. The consumer councils generally were not either for or against GMO, but rather looked at safety and cost issues.

Mr Durham said that the cartoon was meant as an example. There had been a wide variety of information produced in several languages. He could make such material available.

Ms Kloppers-Lourens asked the DoH if any GMO had been withdrawn due to harm being caused. South Africa had a robust GMO registration and monitoring system. She asked how this compared to other countries.

Dr Jaftha said that most systems in the world were similar to the South African model. A submission was considered by scientists with some public participation. In SA, a case-by-case approach was followed where a stacking approach was followed in some other countries. This approach often frustrated the developers.

Ms Kloppers-Lourens asked the dti on the discretion in labelling for substances between 1 and 5% of GMO. She asked what the percentage of cost was, as this seemed to be a great problem. She asked why there was a distinction between 'all' and 'some' foods.

Mr Durham replied that labelling was an issue of choice rather than health. No GMO with health implications would be allowed. Labelling was therefore solely to enable consumers to make informed choices. There should be a segregation between products using GMO and those not using GMO. It was an academic exercise, and was both expensive in terms of money and time. Costs would come down as service providers emerged. If all foodstuffs were to be labelled, food prices would increase. There were cheaper options regarding labelling, and these were being considered by the dti.

Ms Hela assured the Committee that clinical trials were overseen by the MCC, and there was a paramount importance placed on the safety aspects. It would be proper to review GMO foodstuffs. The regulations covered mandatory labelling of food containing a likely allergen, plants containing animal or human genes, and the nutritional value of GMO food being significantly different to conventional counterparts. DoH had looked at what was being done in other countries. Studies had been conducted in Australia and Canada to suggest that the labelling system did have an impact on food prices. The Department needed muscle to enforce labelling and laboratory processes.

Ms Campbell said that the Foodstuffs Act was by its nature reactive. The due diligence for testing was placed on the manufacturer. The DoH was responsible for checking and addressing concerns raised by the public.

Mr Potwana responded that the issue of cost had not yet been quantified. There was consensus that more testing would lead to higher costs, but the extent was still to be quantified. Currently there were traceability reports. This would indicate whether a foodstuff was produced using GMO. There were less costly methods of testing for the presence of GMO substances which could be considered. Cost had to be balanced against the consumer's right to know.

Mr Potwana said that illegal GMO were not allowed in the country. Some substances might be declared illegal but were still the subject of regulation. He felt there was no need to regulate a substance which was illegal.

Mr Potwana said that the it was up to the importer and retailer to decide on labelling for substances between 1 and 5% GMO content. It was mandatory if the 5% threshold was exceeded.

Mr B Bhanga (COPE) felt it strange that no public bodies had commented on the Dow application. He felt that this might be due to the short response time. The process might have been flawed. Advertisements were only placed in English and Afrikaans newspapers. Advertising should be broader, involving all the official languages. DAFF had made amendments to the Act of 1997. Members needed clarity on the basis of the amendments. He had noticed that the speakers had provided limited space for dialogue and no critical appraisal. The presentations had not assisted him. He only knew theology and not science. He asked what was being done in terms of research. The patent holders held monopolies. These were big multi-national companies, and were given the space to dominate the market. There was no localised market. He wanted an explanation on whether GMO had any positive consequences. Some plants might be protected from parasites. He asked what the negative impacts would be. He was informed that it was impossible to quantify the long term effects on humans.

Dr Jaftha said that the limitations imposed on the briefing had prevented the critical approach required by the Member.

Dr Jaftha said that there were seldom comments on single commodities. These were more common on procedures. The thirty day period was the norm in terms of administrative law, but could be reconsidered. Groups sometimes requested an extension of the comment period, and this was normally granted. The content of the notice was prescribed. DAFF would look at publishing the notices more widely. The Act tried to ensure that the notification was as wide as possible. For general release the requirement was three newspapers. A more local approach would be followed in the case of field trials. Other procedures could be used where there were no newspapers distributed in an area.

Mr Bhanga had seen cross-breeding of sheep in the Free State. He was not sure if this was something to be celebrated. Dr Jaftha assured Members that there was no provision for GMO on animals. He read the definitions in the Act. Natural mating or recombination could lead to something different in the next generation of animal. GMO allowed technologists to use tools to create a process that might not be found in nature.

Mr Ngcobo wanted some clarification from the dti on the 1% and 5% thresholds. He asked what the case was between these limits.

Mr Modisane explained that the RP51 issue, a vaccine to control spontaneous abortions in cattle, did not contain any GMO. There had been complaints related to the use of the vaccine. To date, there was no indication that this was due to the inefficacy of the vaccine but was rather related to the way the vaccine was used. If a vaccine was believed to contain GMO, it would have to be evaluated by the Council.

Dr Jaftha said that when an environmental assessment was done, both the targeted and non-targeted species were considered. Research was being done to support the regulatory framework.

Dr Jaftha said that regarding vaccines, there was a working relationship with the Medicines Control Council (MCC). A permit for a human vaccine could not be granted without their approval. The applicant had to provide proof of this approval.

Mr Durham said that the international Service the Acquisition of Biotechnology society for the Advancement of Agriculture (ISSSA) was a not-for-profit company keeping an international focus on the introduction of GMO. There was a financial benefit. DST was looking at the benefits for small-scale farmers, as the need for expensive pesticides could be reduced. There had been no health-related negative impacts reported globally. Despite some reports, scientific consensus was that GMO substances were no more risky than their conventional counterparts.

Mr Ngcobo said that this was the first phase in the process. There would still be public hearings. Matters to be considered included ethics, constitutionality and social impacts. Robust debate was needed.

Ms Steyn repeated her question over the statement made on South Africa being the only country to allow a staple food to be modified.

The Chairperson asked what research was being done. The figure given was 72% of grain being GMO based. He asked to what extent there was an emphasis on organic food. There were two key issues, one being food security and the other safety measures. These were the critical questions. By 2050 the African population would have increased significantly. There had to be a balance between organic and GMO food. He asked if there was any collaboration on research between the Departments. Meat labelling was one of the results of this collaboration, and the silo mentality was being done away.

Mr Bhanga asked if there would still be domination by the multi-national companies, or if a South African would be developed. After applications were received, he asked who was responsible for the funding of the trials. By 2030 more than 50 billion people would have to be fed. He asked if GMO would help to address this need in an affordable manner.

Ms Klopper-Lourens felt that ordinary people would not be able to afford more expensive food as a result of the regulations.

The Chairperson felt that it was clear that the subject matter was generating a lot of interest. The reaction of guests attested to this. People came from different backgrounds.

A DAFF official replied that SA used the highest percentage of GMO in regard to maize.

Dr Jaftha said that one of the main mechanisms was the Council, which met to consider applications every second month. Council helped DAFF to prepare for multi-national engagements.  As the science developed, Council helped to boost the capability of government. This enabled government to address GMO in a holistic fashion. It had been concerned that different bodies followed different standards, hence the need for government based standards.

Dr Jaftha said that the respective applicants conducted trials at research farms, or farmers could be contracted. This was done at their own costs. The set-up for the trials was regulated so that results were meaningful. DAFF inspectors would visit the trials at prescribed times.

Mr Durham said that the multi-nationals were mainly interested in the commercial crops. A lot of money had been spent on maize, cotton and soya in particular. South Africa was now developing its own programmes with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. One area was developing a less thirstier strain of maize. There would be an increase in local products, but cost was a major factor. Government was trying to find ways to mainstream what he termed the 'orphan crops of Africa'. Biotechnology could enhance these crops, but he anticipated the multi-nationals would continue to dominate the three major commercial crops mentioned.

Mr Durham said that the estimate for the global population of 2050 was 9 billion. The green revolution was a term describing the way in which the increase in food supply would keep pace with the increasing population. GMO was one of the tools in biotechnology, but not the sole solution. To feed an additional 2 billion mouths, all technologies had to be considered.

The Chairperson thanked the Departments for their efforts to attend the meeting. The processes being followed were transparent. There did not seem to be a quorum of Members of the Portfolio Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and the adoption of the programme would stand over for a later date. He highlighted the proposed meetings for the forthcoming week.

The meeting was adjourned.

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