Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety: briefing

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Meeting report

040818 Scenvironmental affairs

18 August 2004

Rev P Moatshe (ANC)

Relevant documents:
Briefing on the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety
Genetically Modified Organisms Act, No 15 of 1997
National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act [No. 10 of 2004] (not linked)


The Committee was informed on the Cartegena Protocol that came into force in September 2003 and which South Africa ratified last year. The Protocol as a legally binding document came into effect on 11 September 2003. The briefing outlined the requirements necessary for member states to put in place and the legal undertakings needed. These requirements were supposed to ensure that biodiversity of members states would not be harmed by the introduction of genetically modified organisms into the environment.

The Committee was not convinced that the South African population is kept informed of all the developments on this matter. The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism was not driving the process as was supposed to be the case. The Committee felt very strongly that Department of Agriculture should have been part of the delegation giving this briefing to the Committee. Labelling of GMOs had not been properly addressed by the Protocol and agreement still needed to be reached on this matter amongst the parties to the Protocol. Members felt that they needed more information on the issue so as to participate effectively in the discussion.

Cartagena Protocol briefing
The Director of Biodiversity Management in the Department of Environmental Affairs, Ms Leseho Sello, briefed the Committee on the Cartagena Protocol. This Protocol was negotiated under the auspices of the Convention on Biological Diversity, and entered into force on 11 September 2003. South Africa had participated in the negotiations and ratified it last year.

The overall purpose of the Protocol was to ensure that Genetically Modified Organisms do not cause destruction to the environment thereby altering biodiversity. States agreed that there should be a designation of focal points as well as designation of competent Authorities or Departments that would deal with issues relating to the Protocol.

South Africa already had legislation dealing with the regulation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as far back as 1997 facilitated by the Department of Agriculture (DoA). The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEAT) gave the Department of Agriculture the mandate to negotiate and deal with the day to day running of the Protocol. DEAT and the Departments of Health, Labour, Science and Technology and Trade and Industry sit on the joint executive council set up by the GMO Act. The DoA was responsible for the running of the Bio-Safety Clearing House (BCH) where the information on approvals on GMOs is held.
DEAT was responsible for monitoring the process of implementation.

Gaps needed to be within the protocol. For example, issues of liability as in which country should be responsible in the case of damage to the environment. Would it be the country that held Intellectual Property Rights or the country that used the GMOs when the damage occurred?

Parties to the Protocol were still meeting on such issues as the specific details of labelling consignments containing GMOs. Certain countries felt that labelling was necessary for the benefit of consumers. However countries such as America, which had huge GMO industries, felt that labelling would require an endless paper trail. An example would be labelling on corned beef. The label would state that the cattle was fed on genetically modified grain, injected with genetically modified hormones and could cause side effects on people suffering from disease such as diabetes and asthma.

Those countries felt labelling could scare consumers There was a need for a common understanding of the implications of GMOs on food, environment, security and trade, when aligning the 1997 GMO Act to the Protocol - before amendments are made to the 1997 GMO Act. There were gaps that existed in the GMO Act concerning trans-boundary movement of GMOs. The Departments of Justice and Trade and Industry were working on those areas before amendments were made .The Protocol provides for the establishment of sustainable administrative structures for all countries especially developing countries. South Africa, Cuba and Argentina were in a better position because they had structures in place.

There were procedural requirements to be put in place between the importing country and the exporting country on food, animal feed, and cosmetics. The importing country had to be informed prior the exportation of the consignment The Bio-Safety Clearing House was already in place to look at such requirements. The DoA still had to consult with other departments on the required amendments to the GMO Act.

Mr Mzizi asked which department was the driving force in the amendment of the GMO Act.

Mr Van Rooyen enquired about the Bio-Safety Strategy of the South African government and what was the interpretation or definition of GMOs by the Protocol. What were labelling requirements for consumer protection and transportation of GMOs

Ms Sello replied that ratifying the protocol was a wise move. Section 78 of the Biodiversity Act provided for the establishment of a Bio-Safety Strategy. The South African Biodiversity Institute would monitor the effectiveness of the strategy. Some countries were reluctant to ratify the Protocol for various reasons. South Africa was an important player in those negotiations. Countries that benefited greatly from the technology were opposed to some clauses such as those on liability. There was a deadlock on who should pay for damage to food, the environment and security.

In terms of amending the GMO Act, the DoA was leading the process and DEAT was monitoring the process. The GMO Act did not provide for a Bio-Safety Strategy but the alignment was going to ensure that both the Protocol and the GMO Act do not have major differences.

Risk interpretation was twofold, that is, risk to animals and human health and risk to the environment such as harming the original gene pool or wiping out the original seed by the newly introduced GMOs. This would destabilise food security for peasants and farmers who were not used to buying seeds from multinationals.

Labelling during transportation fell under the Department of Trade and Industry and for consumers labelling was the responsibility of the Health department. The Department of Health had published regulations concerning health hazards on GMOs. The issue of threshold arose on the amount of GMO content. European Union countries were vehemently opposed to GMOs whilst poorer countries were relatively ignorant of labelling GMO foodstuffs.

Mr R Tau cautioned the department that they should not leave the population out of the loop because the end result might impact heavily on the people. The issue had the potential to backfire.

Mr van Rooyen warned the DEAT on the harmonisation of the interpretation of risk amongst the signatory countries, that is, all countries had to interpret risk in the same way for the protocol to succeed.

Mr Mzizi enquired about who would be responsible to account for certain clauses that were left out, was it DoA or DEAT? Also, how long would DEAT wait for the DoA to move faster.

The Chair asked what countries in Africa had ratified the protocol and which countries had refused to ratify the protocol. What plans were in place to ensure that the population is adequately informed of the developments. He cautioned about inherent future problems should the population realise the implications on its food security

Mr van Rooyen urged the department to call for a public debate around the issue of GMOs. DEAT had to invite environmentalists, consumers, religious groups, farmers and peasants.

Mr Watson enquired about the position of the Protocol on the cloning of animals.

The Director reiterated her position that DEAT was going to pressure DoA to speed up the process. There was a Bio-Diversity Strategy but it was not yet enforceable. There was a clause which stated that all GMOs released into the environment should be assessed for hazardous effects by the soon to be established Institute for Bio-Diversity.

She said that African countries which had not ratified the Protocol were catered for by the framework which provided guidelines on Bio-Safety and how to establish sustainable structures. For example, Lesotho was already utilising the framework through the SADC Secretariat

The DEAT was going to do everything to ensure that the views of the population were taken into consideration, when the amendment Bill was tabled.

The most harmful risk was around genetic alteration of seeds. The responsibility of South Africa was to ensure that the GMO technology was exploited with minimal risks to population, animals and environment.

Members raised their concerns around ethical guidelines guiding GMO legislation. They agreed that there was a need for a joint presentation by DEAT and DoA because they felt DEAT had not done justice to the topic. Members asked for more information on the subject as it was technical topic and they needed this in order to discuss the issue competently

The meeting was adjourned


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