Anti-Genetically Modified Organism Lobby: briefings; National Research Foundation Board Shortlist: discussion

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Meeting Summary

A summary of this committee meeting is not yet available.

Meeting report


31 May 2005

Mr E Ngcobo (ANC)

Documents handed out:
PowerPoint presentation by anti-GMO grouping
Cabinet Memorandum: Shortlist of new NRF Board Members

Anti-Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) group representatives emphasised that commercial interests had been placed above health and environmental concerns. A revision of the regulations and legislation surrounding GMOs was of paramount importance and should not be done without public participation. Greater transparency as well as easier access to information was necessary. The Chairperson stated that both sides of the debate had been invited to state their cases. The Committee had tried to get as much information as possible and would take all issues into account when formulating new regulatory and legislative policies. Topics discussed included the meaning and effects of terminator genes, the possibility of a geopolitical agenda from Europe, the production of food through GMOs and public participation.

As the Committee was pressed for time, the only other point on the agenda was the finalisation of the shortlist of new members for National Research Foundation Board. The Ministry of Science and Technology had presented a shortlist of new Board members that differed from the one before the Committee. A female candidate had replaced Mr Thobejane. After some consideration, the Committee decided to approve 11 of the candidates on the shortlist. The Minister would contact the Committee regarding the replacement.


Anti-GMO organisations briefing
The presentation was three-pronged and addressed scientific, ethical and legal concerns regarding Biotechnology and the promotion of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). It was led by Mr Glenn Ashton, a representative of the environmental organisations Ecogaia Foundation, and Safeage. He started the presentation by drawing the Committee’s attention to the fact that South Africa was one of the few countries on the continent that supported the production of GMOs. South Africa thus held a position that was in direct contrast to the ideals of the African Model Law. Mr Ashton stated that this support was fuelled largely by the vested interests of large commercial enterprises.

He emphasised that while anti–GMO groups were not trying to stifle development they were calling for regulatory and legislative reform that would take into consideration the ethical, legal and scientific issues surrounding the debate. Science should be regulated according to public rather than commercial interests. The focus of the presentation was to encourage regulatory and legislative changes that would protect national bio-safety and that would guard against a situation in which evolutionary forces could be harnessed for financial gain. In this regard, Members of Parliament were acting as guardians of national bio-safety.

Dr W Stafford from the Advanced Research Centre for Applied Microbiology (a division of the Department of Biotechnology at the University of the Western Cape) delivered the scientific aspects of the presentation. At the heart of the genetic engineering of plants was the breaking down of barriers that separated the species. In this manner plants could be engineered to meet human specifications. Dr Stafford pointed out that although modifying food sources was an age-old practice (relying on fertilization by cross pollination of the same species) biotechnology equipped man with the tools to engineer plants with any chosen characteristic.

Genetically modified crops consisted of transgenes. Most of these transgenes rendered crops resistant to herbicides and pesticides. The practice of genetically modifying crops carried considerable risk for the environment. The increased resistance of transgenic plants to herbicide could lead to ‘superweed’ characteristics and could encourage the spread of antibiotic resistance. It reduced biodiversity due to outcrossing and selection; increased the occurrence of cancers caused by insertional mutagenesis and effected changes in gene expression; and had unpredictable effects on genetic evolution as well as on the functioning of the ecosystem.

Dr Stafford stressed that events that occurred as a result of genetic engineering happened very rarely in nature and that genetic engineering could lead to enormous evolutionary changes. Genes from transgenic plants could spread to nontransgenic plants via cross-pollination and via horizontal gene transfer. This could result in herbicide and pesticide tolerance, superweeds as well as the spread of antibiotic resistance marker genes. Horizontal transfer from the transgenic plants could spread the new genes and gene-constructs to unrelated species microbes in the soil as well as to worms, insects, reptiles, birds, small mammals as well as human beings.

The consumption of GMOs also carried considerable health risks. DNA could stay in the soil and could alter other organisms. It could spread transgenes to bacteria and viruses, spreading antibiotic resistance genes among the pathogens. When consumed genes could spread to bacteria in the gut as well as to other cells.
A study done on rats found that transgenic potatoes expressing GNA insecticide resulted in an increase in intestinal mucosal thickness and T-lymphocyte infiltration. Transgenic soya might be responsible for the reported recent increase in soya allergy. Human gene therapy experiments for severe combined immunodeficiency caused by the absence of the adenosine deaminase enzyme had been halted by the FDA after a second child had died of cancer.

The following requirements would have to be met before a GMO could be released:
- gene targeting should be specific and efficient;
- there should be a stable and single integration of the gene at a defined site;
- there should be normal levels of expression of the desired gene, and
- its safety should have been proven.

GMO products presently on the market fulfilled none of these requirements.

If these requirements were met, it would be necessary to distinguish between the contained use of transgenic organisms and their release into the environment. Proper independent and long-term feeding trials as well as environmental impact assessments would be vital in order to prove safety. Since GMOs had been released, it was essential to monitor and manage the effects of these experiments.

Bishop G Davies of the SA Council of Churches and the newly established SA Communities Environment Institute focused his attention on three key concerns regarding ethics, secrecy and economic injustice. He was concerned about the manner in which complex issues were dealt with in a purely technical manner. He linked GMO promotion to a neo-liberal agenda that ranked market issues higher than public issues such as health.

Anti-GMO groups were not opposed to science but were in favour of knowing the consequences of actions. They were not opposed to development but concerned about the type of development and whether that development was sustainable. He stressed that if the patterns of life were being changed and if GMOs were to benefit humanity it was necessary to be certain.

Drawing an analogy to apartheid, he said that although the present legal system allowed for the patenting of life by large corporations it remained immoral. Biodiversity was being destroyed at our own peril. The proposal to introduce the terminator gene was most alarming since it would have a disastrous effect on indigenous crops and flora.

A second area of concern was the secrecy that surrounded GMOs. Democracy was based on transparency, yet Monsanto consistently refused to be open regarding its activities. He questioned why, if GMOs were so beneficial, this was not declared on labels. It verged on the criminal that organic food was subjected to rigorous controls, yet GMOs were not required to be labelled.

Bishop Davies declared that the economic injustice perpetuated by large corporations and commercial interests was perhaps the most serious consequence of all. These commercial interests would cripple African traditional farming and small-scale farmers’ enterprises that were seriously disadvantaged by commercial seed companies. GMO production required hi-tech and high-energy resources that meant many jobs were at risk. The future rested with small-scale organic farmers. He expressed his dismay at the tendency to support hi-tech and high energy with capital investments and leaving small-scale farmers out in the cold. He hoped that the ANC government would defend the public against the manipulation and the secrecy of multinational corporations.

Mr Cormack Cullinan, Chief Executive Officer of EnAct International (consultants in environmental law and policy), presented the Committee with the legal concerns regarding access to information on GMOs. For the first time, a single species had significant control over evolution and many laws were being influenced by political and corporate forces.

He expressed dismay that public participation was nearly unheard of in the debate around GMOs. GMOs affected everyone. Public participation thus was of extreme importance. The environmental clause in the Constitution stated that the environment should not be harmful and that the State had an obligation to protect citizens from environmental hazards.

The field of biotechnology and GMOs was a highly technical area requiring NGOs and other groups to have access to information in order to make it understandable to the public. From his experience with Biowatch, he had learnt that gaining access to information was often a long, arduous and costly business.

The law stated that risk assessments should be performed; but these assessments were done on data from foreign countries and on species unknown to South Africa. Furthermore South African scientists were cautious of speaking out against such studies since they received their funding from overseas. South Africans have been eating GMO maize for years for example, yet no assessments of its risks had been performed. It was clear that the available information supported the actions of large corporations.

Mr Cullinan stated that the current system violated the right to justice. Testing had been met with stonewalling and delays. No environmental impact procedure had been performed and to his knowledge none were done for the trial releases. Trial releases were done to assess yield and not safety.

He said that the current regulatory system made participation difficult if not impossible. He was of the opinion that it did not comply with the Constitution. South Africa had peculiar arrangements regarding GMOs and liability, as liability fell on the user of the product i.e. the consumer.

There was no governance framework in place in South Africa to effectively deal with all aspects of the GMO debate. He appealed for openness, transparency and for a reassessment of the regulatory framework that would require a rigorous process of scrutiny.

Mr A Ainslie (ANC) asked for more detail on ‘terminator genes’. Dr Stafford said terminator genes made a plant sterile after one season. They had some good qualities, but if they got into other crops, the effects would be disastrous.

Mr Ainslie said the Department had also indicated in a previous meeting that there was a very strong ‘geopolitical agenda from Europe’, not wanting Africa to benefit from GMO technology. Bishop Davies was concerned about this geopolitical agenda. There was widespread opposition against GMOs in Britain, as GMOs would not benefit the masses. There was more food than needed but the distribution was a problem. The control of food should be kept in the hands of people, not multinational corporations.

Mr Cullinan said Europe was very resistant to GMOs, and the biotechnology companies turned their attention to Africa. They used Africa as an emotive issue. Mr Cullinan could not see any benefits for keeping GMOs out of Africa, but he could see big benefits for those who held the seeds Africa needed.

Mr Ashton said that there had always been a strong notion from the biotechnology industry that those in Africa who opposed GMOs were influenced inordinately by European interests. This was a spurious argument. Mr Ashton took strong exception to this argument. There was a very strong bio-colonialist thrust from developed nations to push this technology, which would involve the ultimate dependence of African farmers on this technology, not the independence of Africans to produce food for themselves. Africa should become self sufficient for food. In 1994, about 40% of South Africans went to bed hungry, but ten years into the democracy, the figure has not changed. Genetically modified food has not made one iota of difference in making more food available. There was plenty of food available in South Africa, yet people were still going hungry. Biotechnology was not going to solve this. There were highly promising technologies in Africa and Central and South America that allowed people to independently produce food, as well as to generate cash. However, this had been overlooked because biotechnology was seen as a "silver bullet" to feed the world.

Mr Ainslie had asked the Department in a previous meeting if sufficient research had been done on GMOs and the Department said that a long-term study had been done in the USA.

Mr A Mlangeni (ANC) was concerned about GMOs, but also about the growing population that increased faster than food could be produced. Foreign multinationals were saying there was starvation and asking how they could produce more food. He wanted to agree with those who said that it should be determined if food was safe, but they were still experimenting. Therefore there could be no public participation. He asked that the scientists be allowed to continue with their experiments, as there was no evidence that people were dying. He questioned why there should be public participation. Gene modification experiments would be fine as long as the scientists were producing more food and not more humans.

Dr Stafford replied that more food was needed, not more food production. There was enough food, but the distribution was problematic. Most gene manipulation was not used for better yields and more nutrition, but for herbicides and to sell more seeds. Long-term experiments had been conducted, but only in certain areas of genetic modification technology and not for South African conditions. GMOs might lead to a huge increase in allergies, but it would be very hard to trace back to genetically modified food. It was definitely an area for informed consent.

Mr Cullinan said the problem was the commercialisation of genetically modified food. Once people were guinea pigs, they had the right to participate. It was very hard to participate when they did not know what was going on.

Mr Ashton said there were democratic, grassroots organisations concerned with genetically modified food, but with almost no funding. Biowatch was the largest organisation, but their recent court case to obtain fundamental information had crippled them financially. What could be ‘commercially confidential’ about feeding safety and environmental information? The United States and the biotechnology industry had spent more than a billion dollars in pushing the technology into Africa. He queried who the ‘bio-colonialists’ were in this instance.

Mr Ashton said that GM crops did not produce higher yields, except for cotton. South Africa produced very little cotton. A recent study had indicated that indebtedness increased in the Makatini flats and that 55 000 jobs had been lost in the cotton industry since this technology was introduced in South Africa. There might well be benefits from biotechnology, but it had to be from an ‘open book’. He also asked for liability and redress, as would be normal in other industries.

Professor I Mohamed (ANC) asked why scientists had not expressed more concern about GMOs in general. The research had been done under controlled circumstances. He mentioned an example in KwaZulu-Natal, where genetically modified sugar cane was exported to Africa, who accepted it.

Mr R van den Heever (ANC) asked if there were sufficient controls within the South African scientific community and said there was not any fundamental objection from the sector on GMOs. He asked if legislation should be considered, or if the checks within the scientific communities were efficient.

Dr Stafford said that biotechnologists were funded by multinational corporations, in effect silencing researchers. However, there were a growing concern among scientists about GMOs, albeit that they were concerned about speaking out about it. Mr Ashton said the scientific community in South Africa was very small. They had a vested interest, as biotechnology was their career. He said Dr Stafford was very brave making his presentation to the Committee. Mr Ashton also knew of many other scientists with deep concerns about GMOs who would not express their concerns on the record.

Mr J Blanché (DA) also had a problem with gaining access to information. He asked if it would be possible for the presenters to give their views to the Committee on paper and encouraged them to approach Parliamentary Committees to access information. Parliament should at all times be kept abreast of what was happening.

Mr Cullinan said the access to information case he was involved with on behalf of Biowatch (regarding the Pebble-bed Modular Reactor [PBMR]) was to show that the system was not working and to make legislative amendments to improve regulation. There should be a kind of sifting process of what was dangerous. His clients, Biowatch, would be very happy to take the matter up in writing. There had been limited public participation in South Africa. However, it was no use ‘having participation and then ignoring the input’.

Mr Ashton said South Africa was completely out of step with what was happening in the rest of Africa. The deeper he looked into GMOs, the more worried he got, because of the agendas involved. It was a step in the wrong direction and had been very poorly regulated.

Mr Blanché warned that the presenters should not confuse genetically modified food with the generation of electricity, otherwise their organisation would be labelled as a group against development. Professor Mohamed said the analogy between PBMRs and GMOs were not fitting. Bishop Davies felt that there were strict regulations for windfarms and organic food, but not for PBMRs and GMOs. He was making the point that it seemed government was supporting high energy, high capital technology.

Mr Mlangeni asked what happened to ‘genetically manufactured’ sheep in the United Kingdom. He also said they had received "huge" grapes in Parliament, and asked what had happened to them. Dr Stafford said the sheep was called Dolly, who had aged and died prematurely. Mr Ashton said Dolly was the first cloned animal after 256 attempts. Dr Stafford thought the grapes were probably not GMOs.

Mr Blanché said scientists should get protection for whistleblowing. Mr Ainslie said the scientific community was speaking out internationally, if not in South Africa. He encouraged the presenters to send documents on the issue to the Committee.

The Chairperson said the aim of the exercise was to brainstorm ideas before a workshop. The Committee had been informed from both ‘sides’. The issue of transgenes was very important, as there could be problems if these were uncontrolled. It was a valid argument that the genes had to be controlled. Points of departure were picked up on. The Chairperson did not understand why labels were not used to signify genetically modified food. This was demanded overseas. Cloning would be fine as long as it could be used only for food.

The Chairperson, who was highly trained in nuclear energy, said the debate in South Africa had ‘lost direction’. The reality was that some people who were concerned about some aspects should not say nuclear energy as a whole was bad. These aspects should be addressed. Parliament needed to be ‘neutral’.

National Research Foundation Boardmembers
Mr Peter Pedlar from the Ministry of Science and Technology said the term of the current NRF Board would expire at the end of June. There had been a useful and transparent process. Currently they had 12 names on the shortlist. The latest list was very racially representative, four provinces were represented and four women were on the shortlist.

The final list differed from the list in the Committee’s possession as Mr Thobejane had been replaced by a female candidate. This announcement resulted in a heated debate on whether the Committee could continue with the discussion since they were not in possession of the updated list.

Professor I Mohammed (ANC) expressed his dissatisfaction that no motivation had been given for the removal of Mr Thobojane, who in his estimation was a perfect candidate. Mr A Ainslie (ANC) said that the Committee was already under considerable pressure to complete the process, only to discover at this late stage that all their work had been based on the wrong list.

Mr Pedlar responded that the Minister had removed Mr Thobojane’s name from the list and that he was not at liberty to discuss the reasons. He assured the Committee that the revised list had been forwarded to them.

Mr Sello Dithebe (Department of Science and Technology) pointed out that the removal of Mr Thobojane’s name did not constitute a radical departure from the original list and that the discussion could therefore continue based on the new candidate. Mr Ngcobo made it clear that, if the Committee had received the revised list, they would have based the discussions on that list. In accordance with Parliamentary procedure, the discussion could not continue since it would be based upon unconfirmed information.

Mr J Blanché (DA) suggested that the discussion continue but that it should only deal with the unchanged names on the list. The last name could be added after confirmation had been received from the Department. His suggestion was accepted.

Mr Ainslie (ANC) commended the Department for the list it had compiled. On behalf of the ANC, he proposed that Mr Thulani Gcabashe be replaced by Professor Thandabantu Nhlapu who was widely experienced. He also proposed that Dr Chippy Olver be replaced by Professor Paula Ensor which would bring the board’s gender balance to 50%. Professor Ensor, currently Dean of Humanities at the University of Cape Town, would be an asset to the board, based on her history of activism as well as her expertise. Mr R van den Heever (ANC) seconded these proposed changes.

Mr Blanché stated that the DA supported the list and would consider what the Minister had to say regarding the Thobojane matter.

The meeting was adjourned.


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