Benefits of Genetically Modified Organisms: Monsanto, UCT and CSRI briefings; Leadership & Learning Academy: Proposal: Committee

Science and Technology

30 August 2005
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Meeting Summary

A summary of this committee meeting is not yet available.

Meeting report


30 August 2005

Mr E Ngcobo (ANC)

Documents handed out:
National African Farmers’ Union briefing
Presentation by Sabina Khoza
University of Cape Town briefing
Monsanto briefing (available
CSIR Research and Innovation Management Programme briefing
Letter in Business Report website as June 2003

A number of organisations and researchers briefed the Committee on the advantages and disadvantages of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A Gauteng small-scale farmer first related to the Committee how biotechnology had resulted in larger maize yields for her. The financial benefits far outweighed the high costs of GMOs.

The Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Cape Town then explained that scientists could not prove the claims of the anti-GMO lobby. Many international organisations, including Vatican leaders, had come out in support of GMOs. The use of GMOs had grown substantially in the last few years. Future developments regarding GMOs could include extracting vaccines from plants and the creation of drought-resistant maize.

Monsanto Sub-Saharan Africa described the benefits of GMO crops, such as a reduction in input costs and management time. In the 2004/2005 season, South Africa had planted more than 500 000 hectares of GM crops. South Africa had been planting GM crops for the past six years. Some African leaders had come out in support of GMOs.

In the ensuing discussion, the Committee particularly asked questions about the herbicide ‘Roundup Ready’, opposition to GMOs from Europe and Africa, the liability of companies, labelling and monopolies in the market.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Innovation, Leadership and Learning Academy then discussed the proposed Research and Innovation Management Programme, which would be presented to Members of Parliament. The interim learning objectives included understanding the research and innovation process, understanding the dynamic nature of elements, and understanding underlying competencies for success across the research and innovation value chain. The course would take place in five modules of five days over 2.5 years. The Committee discussed how Members with different qualifications would qualify.


National African Farmers’ Union briefing
Ms Sabina Khoza, a small-scale farmer from near Johannesburg, and Secretary-General of the National African Farmers’ Union (NAFU), told the Committee that she grew vegetables and maize and ran a training project on her farm. During the 2004/2005 season, she had planted maize on six experimental plots in six provinces. Biotechnology yield increases on the six sites had averaged 40, 5% over conventional maize. The highest increase had been on Ms Khoza’s farm, where she had been planting genetically modified maize for three years. The use of genetically modified maize had meant a higher income, safe food and a reduction in the handling of hazardous chemicals.

While it had often been said that farmers could not replant saved seed, Ms Khoza had planted saved seed. But with saved seed, farmers could lose 30% of their yield. That was why Africa was suffering from hunger and food shortages. Biotechnology was what Africa needed to overcome famine. Farmers preferred to buy new seed every year to benefit from the higher yields that fresh seed guaranteed.

Ms Khoza agreed that farmers were paying high prices for Genetically Modified (GM) technology, but when the price of the technology was compared with reduced spraying costs and increased yield, they were better off financially. The use of insecticides had been reduced considerably. Where ten sprays were necessary for conventional cotton, biotechnology cotton required only two sprays.

University of Cape Town briefing
Professor Jennifer Thomson (UCT Department of Molecular and Cell Biology) made it clear that she was an independent scientist and had never received a grant from any Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) company. Her views were based on independent scientific peer-reviewed research by independent scientists who approved of GMOs to show that food from GM crops was healthy for human consumption and would not contaminate the environment.

Anti-GMO lobbyists made unsubstantiated claims, amongst others, that GM food was unsafe for human consumption and would endanger biodiversity and contaminate the environment. None of their claims had ever received the backing of any of the world’s scientific and medical academies, or agricultural faculties and research institutions. There was no scientific evidence available anywhere that proved that GM food posed a health risk, or that it could contaminate the environment. No agricultural crop technology had been subjected to such stringent scientific and medical tests as GMOs. Professor Thomson recalled statements by the Royal Society of London, European Union, France’s Academy of Science, the Vatican and United Nations to prove her point.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), the use of GM crops had grown 40-fold in the first eight years after their introduction. The global area under GM cultivation had increased from 1, 7 million hectares in 1996 to 68 million hectares grown by seven million farmers in 18 countries on all six continents in 2003. A conservative forecast had indicated that in five years this area would exceed 100 million hectares, involving 10 million farmers in 25 countries. Of the seven million farmers growing GM crops, more than 85% were resource poor. Farmers in China, India, South East Asia, Latin America and Africa were officially growing GM crops at a faster rate than farmers elsewhere in the developed world.

South African farmers, emergent and commercial, had planted more than 400 000 hectares of GM crops this season. South Africans had been eating GM food for the past six years without any problems. The forecast was that 2, 5 million hectares of our 3 million hectares maize crop would be GM crops in five years.

Scientific and medical institutions were supporting the growing of GM crops for medicinal purposes, known as pharming to develop a plant-derived vaccine against infectious diseases as an alternative to injections at a fraction of the cost and in great volumes. The production of vaccines in plants negated the possibility of infections, would be cheap to produce and would vaccinate against many diseases. It could also be put into pills. The pharming technology would not only boost farmers’ income, but would also bring relief to millions of disease sufferers in the developing world.

Professor Thomson was part of a group of scientists at the University of Cape Town (UCT) who were using genes from a resurrection plant indigenous to South Africa to create drought tolerant maize. The group had developed a number of strategies to isolate genes that were functionally important in drought stress. Thanks to biotechnology, drought tolerant maize would be a great boon to maize production in Africa. There had also been work done on the development of transgenic maize, which would be immune to viruses.

Monsanto Sub-Sahara Africa briefing
Mr Kobus Lindeque, Monsanto Managing Director, said that there were still many people under the impression that biotechnology was new and untested, but plant biotechnology products were now entering their tenth year of significant commercial use around the world, after more than 20 years of research and development in agricultural biotechnology.

The adoption of existing traits and regulatory approvals for new agricultural biotechnology products continued to grow around the world. On a cumulative basis since 1996, the one billionth acre (400 million hectares) of GM crops had been planted on 8 May 2005. It could thus be said that these crops met the expectations of millions of large and small-scale farmers in both industrial and developing countries and the billions of consumers of these products.

There were many benefits to growing GM crops:
- producers benefited from a reduction in input costs and management time;
- insect protected crops did not require as many insecticide applications;
- weed control with herbicide tolerant crops was much easier to manage; and
- the increased efficiency of insect and weed control generally delivered higher yields.

In the 2004/2005 season, South Africa had planted more than 500 000 hectares of GM crops. South Africa had been planting GM crops for the past six years. Some 40 million people had consumed GM food in one way or another.

These developments were in spite of the vigorous anti-GMO campaign launched to stop the development of GM crops for food and feed.

As millions of people faced hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa, Mr Lindeque was proud to announce that Monsanto had donated R7 million worth of maize to Malawi. Responsible African leaders had already decided that GMO technology was the route African agriculture should take to survive.

The anti-GMO lobby had stated that the European Union (EU) had banned GMO crops and food. This was not true, as the EU moratorium had been lifted in May 2004. Seventeen GM maize varieties had recently been approved by the EU, allowing trade and planting in all 25 EU member states. Despite the intensive worldwide anti-GMO campaign, GMO crops in 2004 had for the ninth consecutive year shown a substantial increase of 20% compared with 15% in 2003.

Monsanto had launched a pledge, which committed the company to five principles for the development of biotechnology and for running its business worldwide. The five principles were:
- dialogue;
- transparency;
- respect for others’ views and concerns;
- sharing information and knowledge; and
- delivering real benefits to farmers and consumers.

Eight ethanol plants, costing R2, 4 billion, would be constructed to produce ethanol from maize to reduce South Africa’s oil imports. GM maize would make a major contribution to the ethanol project, as more maize/hectares could be produced.

Mr Lindeque invited the Committee to include a visit to Monsanto’s research farm in their projects for 2006.

Mr R Ainslie (ANC) asked if the herbicide Roundup Ready was able to distinguish between the plants that should and should not be killed. Mr Lindeque answered that Roundup Ready could not distinguish. It had been the largest selling herbicide for the last 50 years and it had clear guidelines. There had never been complaints that it killed plants it should not have. One of its advantages was that it broke down within 48 hours.

Mr Ainslie said there had been huge opposition to GMOs in Europe and Africa. He experienced difficulty with the counter arguments. He asked for comment on some of the issues raised by the anti-GMO lobby, such as the absence of independent verification and safety tests for research, the view that GMO companies should be liable for damages that could arise from GMOs and that farmers were made dependent on big business.

Mr Lindeque said the countries opposing GMOs had more than enough food. If Europe opened their market to GM foods, the USA would destroy their farmers. Opposition to GMOs in Africa was based on the notion that it was a brand new technology. African farmers had to understand the new technology and why Europe was against it.

Professor Thomson said that the question had been asked why all GMO foods were produced by multinationals within the scientific community. Research cost money, which made it difficult for small laboratories in the developing world. There was a big will to deal with the issue. The EU had done 81 independent projects.

Regarding the liability issue, Mr Lindeque said Monsanto went to countries with GMO regulations in place and they had worked with governments. If there ever were a problem, they would take responsibility. If Monsanto were made liable, it had to be done across the board.

Mr Ainslie said he had the right to choose what he ate. He asked if Monsanto were opposed to compulsory labelling of GM products. Mr Lindeque said they were not opposed to labelling. The question was how it should be done. They would not be able to handle the logistics, and would like food to become cheaper.

Ms F Mahomed (ANC) asked what kind of competition they had. It would be very detrimental if they had a monopoly. Mr Lindeque answered that it was a concern. There were five multinational companies involved in GMOs. Monsanto had given every gene they had to these companies to ensure competition.

Mr K Khumalo (ANC) asked Ms Khoza what the difference between biotechnology and GMO products were. He also asked Professor Thomson how the research would benefit rural communities.

Professor I Mohamed (ANC) said there was a problem in that people had to import seed every year. It was one of the objections to GMOs.

Professor Mohamed told Professor Thomson that there were many other factors involved with sicknesses, which had to be eliminated in the research.

Professor Mohamed also enquired about Omega 3.

Mr P Nefolovhodwe (AZAPO) was concerned about the control of seeds. He said Africa was a poor continent; the seeds had to be left to "flow". He suggested that it should be added to Monsanto’s pledge.

Mr Nefolovhodwe asked to what extent chemicals were detrimental, and if there were any unintended consequences.

Mr Nefolovhodwe said maize would react to the environment, dependent on where it was planted. He asked if Monsanto had done any studies for the rest of Africa, because what might be good in South Africa might not be good in Zambia.

Ms Mahomed asked how they ensured that indigenous knowledge systems were not lost.

Ms Mahomed asked if they had considered being a social partner of the government.

Mr B Mnyandu (DA) said the debate revolved around quantity and not quality.

The Committee agreed that the above questions had to be answered in writing due to time constraints.

The Chairperson said GMOs were a very controversial topic, with wide ranging views.

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Innovation, Leadership and Learning Academy
The purpose of the briefing by Mr Awie Vlok, head of CSIR’s CILLA, was to consolidate the earlier conversations with the Committee and to agree on the process forward for the learning framework refinement and delivery for the Research and Innovation Management Programme. This programme would be for Members of Parliament.

CILLA had eight learning clusters:
- management and leadership;
- strategic management of innovation;
- project management;
- financial management;
- science and technology excellence;
- personal development and efficiency;
- marketing and business development and
- mentorship excellence.

The Committee’s needs had been identified as the conversion of the CILLA suite of short courses into a three to five year programme, leading to qualifications or credits towards qualifications and based on contact time of two hours twice a week.

The interim learning objectives would be:
- understanding the research and innovation process;
- understanding the dynamic nature of elements;
- understanding underlying competencies for success across the research and innovation value chain;
- shared understanding of attitude, skill and knowledge;
- related Member roles in science and technology based innovation; and
- a quality learning and sharing environment.

CILLA had interacted with potential delivery partners such as the Council for Higher Education, private organisations and the University of Pretoria. CILLA was not a teaching organisation; therefore they had to work with the structures that were in place. They had entered into a partnership with the University of Pretoria (UP).

The proposed package was a two-year Honours degree in Research and Innovation Management, consisting of 200 hours, with the first module to commence in November 2005.

Ms Hermien Dorfling, University of Pretoria, said they had been approached by the CSIR to look at the possibility of a learning intervention. Depending on the group, they could structure a programme with different exit points. Module clustering would be a good idea. There would also be existing formal qualifications available for people who qualified. They were looking to accelerate such a program. They would be offering a quite flexible opportunity for different people. They had much experience in that regard.

Mr Vlok said in conclusion that the Committee’s request had been treated as a high priority. The alliance between the CSIR and UP was capable and keen and the Committee’s commitment would set the delivery wheels in motion.

The Chairperson asked if the contacts/lessons would be once a week. Mr Vlok said they would look at one-week blocks with follow-up materials because of the logistics. There would also be the matter of testing.

Ms Mahomad asked if they had checked the market and if there was a demand for innovation management. Mr Vlok said the demand for the course was high. It had become increasingly accepted that organisations would be left behind if they were not able to innovate.

Mr Khumalo said it would be a two-year Honours degree, but not all Parliamentarians had junior academic degrees. Mr R van den Heever (ANC) also expressed concerns about the differing qualifications of Members. He asked if the course would be the same for all of them. The Chairperson asked how people who were differently qualified would be accommodated. Ms Dorfling suggested that people without Bachelor degrees would get a certificate, and not a formal degree, but it could provide access to other courses. The Chairperson suggested that the course should be a diploma course for everybody. Mr Nefolovhodwe said there should be some choice; the rules of the game were not the same for everybody. He said the Chairperson should not be concerned about it. The Chairperson agreed.

Mr Van den Heever said it would be "quite stiff" if the course ran for five days a week for two years. Ms Dorfling said they usually did it in five chunks of five days each, depending on available time. This had been most effective. The Chairperson asked what would happen to the processes of Parliament if Members would use five full days. The course should be presented on days convenient to Parliament. Ms Aziza Fredericks (CILLA) said the course would amount to 25 days over a period of two and a half years.

The Chairperson said the naming of the course was very important. He asked what the qualification would be called. The name would be "Research and Innovation Management".

Committee programme and Secretary’s Minutes
The Committee’s programme for the fourth term was adopted with a minor amendment.
The Secretary’s minutes of meetings during the second term were adopted without amendments.

The meeting was adjourned.


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