Genetically Modified Organisms: briefing

Science and Technology

05 April 2005
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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report


5 April 2005

Chairperson: Mr E Ngcobo (ANC)

Documents handed out:
PlantBio PowerPoint presentation [email]
BioPAD presentation on Implementation of the National Biotechnology Strategy
Public Understanding of Biotechnology presentation on public perception of biotechnology in South Africa

PlantBio website
BioPAD website
Public Understanding of Biotechnology website

The Committee was briefed on the potential of biotechnology, including Genetic Modification, by three organisations that are involved in biotechnology and who wish to ensure public awareness and debate on its current and potential future applications.

PlantBio said that it aimed to lead South Africa in developing, by 2014, a sustainable and world-class biotechnology industry. The briefing described its operations, which included marker selection, in vitro propagation, bio-control of pests, bio-fertilisation, transgenic crops and GMOs. Despite some opposition, PlantBio remained convinced that GMO research and development, provided it was carried out with approved safety standards, would meet food needs and create valuable economic opportunities for South Africa. It was vital to be a leader in bio-safety standards, and to address capacity building.

BioPAD aimed to minimise the gap between local knowledge and international research, and boost local research. The briefing looked at the main programmes currently being undertaken by BioPAD in areas of breeding technology, vaccine development, rehabilitation of contaminated water, solid state fermentation, aloe extracts, biocatlysis, use of bio-organisms to degrade toxins, heap leeching in mines, and bio-processing for improved diagnostics.

The Public Understanding of Biotechnology (PUB) programme was launched by the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA) in early 2003. The Department of Science and Technology is funding this three year initiative. PUB reported on the research undertaken to find out what South Africans felt about and understood by biotechnology. The most significant findings were that most South Africans had a high level of ignorance about biotechnology, and were not well informed about GMO foods in particular. Those who were negative on the issue could not give exact reasons for their negativity. PUB said that it was clear that there was a great need to educate the public and the results of the research would be taken forward in planning a programme and in developing safety standards.

Members of the Committee raised queries on the safety of GMO foods, on labelling, and on regulation of organisations involved in biotechnology. The presenters reported that there was no scientific finding that GMO foods were harmful, but would support labelling. Organisations were sufficiently regulated. Other queries by members related to clarification on the programmes outlined.

National Innovation Centre for Plant Biotechnology (PlantBio) briefing
Dr Sagadevan Mundree (CEO, PlantBio) reported that there were nine collaborative organisations and 39 companies making a contribution to biotechnology. PlantBio aimed to lead South Africa in developing, by 2014, a sustainable and world-class biotechnology industry. This industry covered a R60 billion market per annum, six times larger than the pharmaceutical industry. It included crops, forestry, wine, fruit and agriculture. PlantBio would set the technological platforms to feed into commercially orientated applications and help to converge all resources.

PlantBio’s main activities fell into five areas:
· Breeding with and without marker assistance selection (MAS) – to reduce the time taken to produce varieties of plants. This was a non-GMO approach, used in the maize, seed and fruit industry, The Rockefeller Foundation was funding the African centre for Crop Improvement, a ten-year programme, which would produce 40 PhD, graduates in the field.
· In vitro propagation – a low technology, clonal propagation of disease free plants. It was currently used in banana production. Five million plants were produced per annum; 70% were exported; and the remaining 30% met 90% of South African market need. This method provided an excellent opportunity to set up SMMEs focusing on specific activities. All botany departments at South African universities already included plant tissue culture in their programmes, this method met the need for indigenous plant propagation, and was also labour intensive, thus assisting unemployment.
· Bio-control – which aimed to reduce dependency on traditional pesticides, and produce better and cheaper alternatives for local small scale farmers
· Bio-fertilisation – development of microorganisms to improve fertility of soil, which would again address the needs of small-scale farmers.
· Transgenic crops – the use of genes to manipulate crops. This was being widely developed in other countries and although there were sensitivities and criticisms, PlantBio felt that these developments must be followed and paralleled in South Africa. Multinational companies focused on crops important to their market but PlantBio wished to address local crops. UCT researchers were working on a project using gene-stacking from indigenous resurrection plants, to develop drought-tolerant maize

Bio-safety remained a vital factor and new developments, such as chloroplast transformation, tissue specific promoters, and pollen sterility would ensure safety measures. South Africa would support GMOs provided they met the approved safety measures. South Africa needed to establish a bio-safety platform to address environmental and consumer safety issues. It had the necessary expertise, and could develop a model for other African countries.

Capacity development remained a high priority, and included management of intellectual property, promoting and developing plant breeders and plant physiologists. All stakeholders should be involved in this process. Black Economic Empowerment at all levels formed part of the strategic document now being developed. About one-third of South Africans were dependent on small-scale farmers and PlantBio was particularly proactive in meeting with these farmers to address their concerns and map out the future. It had already assisted 140 organic farming families in KwaZulu Natal to gain direct market access to retail chains, to introduce other varieties, and to improve access to water, electricity and irrigation.

PlantBio had initiated a project to develop industrial potential as well as food source – such as cassava, useful as a staple crop, and for producing industrial starch. PlantBio was busy with the building of a factory in which the farmers were stakeholders.

PlantBio believed it must look to all technology to deal with food requirements, to improve quality of life, and to build South Africa’s economy.

BioPAD Presentation on Implementation of the National Biotechnology Strategy
Dr Butana Mboniswa (CEO, BioPAD) reported that BioPAD, in conjunction with a number of other institutions and units, aimed to address the gap between local and international research, and to boost local research. BioPAD had achieved considerable success over the past two years. He summarised the main programmes currently being undertaken by BioPAD as follows:
· Breeding technology – implants of test-tube embryos of superior beef-cattle breeds into the cattle of small-scale farmers, to increase the stock of superior breeds, which were a prime export. A number of other organisations were interested in a partnership programme, which could be tied into land redistribution and agricultural improvement schemes
· Development of vaccine delivery and presentation systems – to address animal epidemics. A foot-and-mouth vaccine was being developed at the University of Pretoria, and there was potential for export of vaccines and technology. Another development concerned fish farming where microorganisms were being introduced in preference to chemicals, to heal ulcers on fish in the tanks.
· Rehabilitation of contaminated water, through use of microorganisms, particularly in mining areas. Rhodes University researchers and Grootvlei Mines were already partnering a project in this field, and hoped to expand to other areas and mining companies.
· Solid State Fermentation – the use of South African indigenous micro-organisms to produce flavouring without addition of chemicals
· Extraction and refinement of aloesin – BioPAD was already working with communities in the Eastern Cape, who tapped aloes, to assist them in promoting themselves and finding better opportunities. BioPAD did not intend to change the indigenous knowledge but to improve it by isolating the molecules most beneficial in medicinal or cosmetic use.
· Biocatalysis – research into the presence and use of micro-organisms in the deepest mine-shafts, which paralleled some of NASA’s research
· New discoveries had included a method of isolating organisms which could degrade arsenic to a less toxic form
· Bio-assisted heap leeching operations – a consortium had been developed to bio-leech micro organisms to assist in dislodging minerals in a more cost effective and environmentally effective way
· Bio processing in the areas of human health to develop better diagnostics in TB and malaria, and to empower rural communities in the diagnostic process. A partnership with Brazil and Cuba was envisaged to try to link technologies in producing vaccines.

Mr A Ainslie (ANC) asked for clarification on patenting. If it were possible to patent a life form, would some large multinationals not be able to control the production of seeds, which would exacerbate the problems of small farmers.

Dr A Patterson, Chief Operating Officer, Department of Science and Technology) replied that World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) regulations prohibited patenting a life form, but that certain aspects of that life form could be patented. South Africa had taken a conservative approach to patenting, but it was vital to patent the result of publicly funded research to prevent other countries from "lifting" that research and registering a foreign patent, to the detriment of South Africa. For instance, developments on the AIDS vaccine had been patented as a strategic move to negotiate more favourably with other drug companies.

Mr Ainslie and Ms F Mahamed (ANC) queried whether sufficient long-term research had been done on the safety and ramifications of genetically modified foods.

Mr Paterson (DST) replied that extensive studies had been conducted in the United States and there was no scientific evidence to suggest that GMOs presented any health hazard if they were responsibly and ethically modified. He pointed out that genetically modified maize might involve the change of only one gene, whereas a person sampling new food would encounter about 70 new genes. Some modifications – such as the improvement of vitamin A content in golden rice – were proven beneficial to health. There was a very strong geopolitical agenda amongst some European countries that did not wish Africa to benefit from GMO technology, but the Department believed that there was a need to focus on best practice and parallel development.

Mr A Mlangeni (ANC) asked for further clarification why some of the poorest countries, such as Zimbabwe and Zambia, had strenuously resisted the import of genetically modified foods.

Mr Paterson (DST) replied that Zimbabwe and Zambia had not wanted to receive GM foods because of the risk of contamination of their own crops destined for export to EU countries. A solution would be to mill the food before it was exported.

Mr A Mlangeni asked if BioPlant supported compulsory labelling of GMO foods, and Dr Mundree replied that it did.

Ms F Mahamed (ANC) asked which countries were involved in the research and development projects with South Africa. She asked where embryo cattle were exported, and whether South Africa would still be highly competitive in this area in the future. She asked for clarity on the global effects of cloning. She agreed that these questions would be answered in writing as time did not permit full answers after the presentation.

Ms Mahamed also asked what impact SMMEs could have in biotechnology programmes.

Dr Mboniswa replied that when biotechnology was introduced to communities, quarantine was followed and communities assisted so that the programmes would be effective. Both DST and Department of Trade and Industry were involved in the process.

Ms F Mahamed asked how the Aloesin project in the Eastern Cape would operate and what would be the chances of export. Dr Mboniswa stated that the project was moving forward well. The extracts had been sent to the major cosmetic houses for testing, and a positive response received as the extract was of high quality. Before entering full production a number of regulatory issues would need to be addressed. The aloe tappers would also be involved in the supply chain.

Mr R van den Heever (ANC) asked whether the development of drought-tolerant maize would lead to similar developments in other crops. Mr J Blanche (DP) asked whether the embryo transplants had been applied only to beef cattle. Dr Mboniswa confirmed that this was so but that interest had been expressed in a dairy project, as the technology would be the same. Dr Mundree replied that scientists at UCT had identified and were working on a number of genes to improve drought tolerance, and whilst the focus at present was on staple South African crops, the research could be moved to other crops in the region.

Prof I Mohamed (ANC) noted that researchers at Natal University some years ago had been particularly cautious to avoid unplanned pollination. He asked whether some of the developments could not impact negatively on other crops or animal production. He also asked whether bio leeching was being widely used and whether it was not too costly.

Dr Mundree (BioPlant) replied that since inception of research programmes into GMO, there had been improved methods of isolation, including pollen sterility, and the gene being contained in the egg cell instead of the nucleus, which allowed for containment of any modified organisms. This would not have a negative impact on other production.

Dr Mboniswa stated that BHP Billiton had been active in the leeching technology in Australia. Most companies in South Africa currently preferred old technology, although leeching was less costly, and added value in that there was a microorganism that could assimilate nano particles of gold from mine dumps. There were great opportunities for expansion in this area.

Ms F Mahamed asked what specifically was being done to attract women to the scientific field. Dr Mboniswa reported that the problem was being addressed at various levels, from attracting students at school level, to ensuring that women scientists took leadership roles, to having a portfolio of research that was gender-sensitive.

The Chairperson asked for a brief explanation of the difference between therapeutic and nuclear cloning, and whether it applied to plants. Dr Mundree stated that nuclear and therapeutic cloning applied only to animals. South Africa followed the United Nations’ view that human cloning was unacceptable, but that therapeutic cloning did allow for stem-cell research and other aspects of improving health. Animal reproduction by cloning was permitted. Three countries globally were conducting animal cloning. The South African company (de la Rey), which cloned the first cow in South Africa, was also involved in export of embryos.

Mr A Ainslie asked for confirmation that the various units and organisations involved in biotechnology were regulated and controlled to a sufficient degree.

The Chairperson asked for further clarification on recent press reports that CSIR had allowed the import of a genetically modified plant that was banned in the United Kingdom.

Mr A Paterson (DST) replied that the press article was not accurate. CSIR had been involved in an international proposal to use plants to develop pharmaceuticals. The proposal had been accepted by the European Union and had been passed by a control programme. CSIR, owing to its scientific excellence, had been invited to participate in production, but had specifically recorded that it would do so only subject to South African policy. The media story had emanated from overseas opponents of GMO research, and a scientist from CSIR had replied to the report in detail, and was not challenged further. Mr Paterson reiterated that all research was indeed under proper ethical control and DST would seek to further strengthen all regulatory aspects, to achieve a correct balance of risk and benefit.

The Chairperson queried how research into microorganisms would link into debates on life on other planets. Dr Mboniswa replied that one of the debates centred around the meaning of "life-form" and single cell organisms. He explained that if ancient bacteria were able to survive in a pressured environment (such as lava flows, in rocks, deep under water) there was a chance that other organisms could also survive. This was the key to some of the NASA research into Mars, and was also linked to palaeontology studies in South Africa.

PUB presentation on public perception of biotechnology in South Africa
Ms Helen Malherbe (Public Understanding of Biotechnology (PUB) Programme co-ordinator) reported that the research had been undertaken to find out what South Africans felt about and understood by biotechnology, drawing also on the expertise of the HSRC research units. This was the first comprehensive survey in the field undertaken in South Africa, and it used questions and practices undertaken in other countries, making it easy to compare data obtained from other countries. The survey was unique in that it was conducted in all official languages, by way of face-to-face response only. It was demographically representative. It was also repeatable and a follow-up would be done in a few years time.

The survey had attracted an 82% response and had used mostly closed questions to measure the level of knowledge, opinions and trust in biotechnology. It had shown that 80% of respondents did not know what biotechnology was. There were currently three genetically modified foods on sale in South Africa but 66% of respondents did not know what these were. Only 11% believed that they were probably eating GM foods, as opposed to 30% in the United States. There was a high level of ignorance in South Africa about the issue, as also a high level of indecision. Despite this, 50% of respondents still believed GM research and use should continue, and 72.5% stated that they did not know whether GM foods were good or bad. The 50% who did not support GMOs could not give one good reason for their negativity. 11% believed that genetic modification violated religious or ethical principles – and that would be a factor to be investigated further. Most respondents stated they received information from television, which appeared to have overtaken radio as a source of information.

On the question of food labelling, most respondents indicated they would want a list of ingredients and health benefits on labels, but only 1% specified that they would want to know of the GMO content. 51% of respondents did not read food labels, and those who did tended to be from the higher-income brackets.

Respondents were asked whom they would trust as a reliable source of information. Universities and the media ranked as their two top sources. Government information ranked much higher as a reliable source than in other countries. Information emanating from multi-national companies was viewed in a poor light, and consumer organisations and environmental groups ranked almost equal.

The survey had shown that there was a high level of interest in receiving more information, which would assist in focusing the DST’s efforts on health and medical issues, which would include therapeutic cloning, and in stressing that cloning did not only mean reproductive cloning.

Mr A Ainslie asked who had funded the survey and who had been responsible for conducting it.

Mr Paterson (DST) replied that the Public Understanding of Biotechnology was run as an independent unit , but was funded by the Department. The unit had provided neutral information gleaned from a fact-based approach that was not controlled by the Department. The survey was based on best practice internationally and the partnership with HSRC had ensured that the statistics were valid and accessible.

The Chairperson reminded the Committee that a workshop still would be held on the various issues raised, which would assimilate presentations by religious, sociological and medical groups to inform the process further.

The meeting was adjourned.


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