Scientific Perspective of Genetically Modified Organisms: briefing

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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report

15 November 2005

Acting Chairperson:

Mr S Abram (ANC)


Genetically Modified Organisms, A Scientific Perspective

An scientist from the University of Cape Town presented a scientific perspective on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to the Committee. He defined biotechnology and then addressed First Generation Biotechnology and Third Generation Biotechnology. The role of agriculture in Africa was discussed and biotechnology priorities in Africa and South Africa’s focus areas were also described.

The Committee discussed the concerns of the anti-GMO lobby, spontaneous gene transfer, the production of sterile seeds, whether GMOs would impact on exports, the safety consequences of GMOs and testing.

Genetically Modified Organisms: A Scientific Perspective
Professor Iqbal Parker, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, presented a scientific perspective on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to the Committee. He said Biotechnology was a body of techniques that used biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof to make or modify products that were useful for human consumption and use.

First Generation Biotechnology has been used for ages. These include insulin, growth hormones, cheese production, beer production and many other uses.

Third Generation Biotechnology was where there was no longer the need to rely on animals. The gene was taken from a human cell, and the cell was put into bacterium. This brought about the genetic modification of living organisms. This was why people were fearful of GMOs. Third Generation Biotechnology was used in hormones such as insulin and vaccines for TB, Aids and Malaria, among other uses.

When viral genes were cloned into bacteria, they could produce large quantities of protein. There were control mechanisms in place to ensure the containment of the genes.

The methods used in Biotechnology were worked out in the 1970s. Human DNA was inserted into bacterium. This was a very selective process, only cloning the desired genes. Human cloning was a totally different aspect, which have not been done anywhere. This was a very tightly regulated process.

South Africa had policies and legislation in place to deal with biotechnology. Ethical issues were addressed and there were several programmes in place for the public understanding of biotechnology.

Regarding the role of agriculture in Africa, Professor Parker said that 40% of a harvest could be lost due to post-harvest damage. The population would double by 2025. Most African countries depended on agriculture. According to the projected cereal yield in 2025, there would be a huge shortage at current production levels.

Virus resistant crops, parasitic weed resistance, African varieties of BT maize, decreasing mycotoxin levels and drought tolerant crops were biotechnology priorities in Africa.

South Africa’s focus areas were human health (vaccines and biopharmaceutical production), food security, plant production, animal health and sustainable industrial development.

Mr S Holomisa (ANC) said the presentation was somewhat incomplete. He thought Professor Parker would have told the Committee what the anti-GMO lobby were afraid of and how their concerns could be addressed.

Professor Parker said some of the issues raised by the anti-GMO lobby were the safety of GMOs and its long-term effects. In isolated areas on control farms environmental impact studies have been done. South Africa has had this for the last four years. The long-term effects were looked at in South Africa. The anti-GMO lobby also raised issues of allergies in humans down the line. In China golden rice has been introduced, which produced vitamin A. There also was a type of maize that contained vitamin A. The question was what would happen if people overdosed on vitamin A. This type of issue was being addressed in South Africa.

Mr Holomisa said there was a problem that the people who produced genetically modified seeds made it impossible that the farmers who used these seeds could produce seeds of their own. Professor Parker said there was a time when Monsanto, one of the largest producers of GMO seeds, produced sterile seed. The matter has been taken care of. The problem was the patent law. Monsanto has given up on sterile seeds.

Ms E Ngaleka (ANC) asked if the mines were using the substance that extracted gold and if it was used to rehabilitate mines. Professor Parker said bacteria were used for gold extraction on the mine dumps. The industry have used it, and benefited by its use. It was not used in mines, but mine dumps, so it has not helped in the rehabilitation of mines.

Ms Ngaleka said that when GMOs were used insects did not survive. She asked what this meant for humans.

Dr A van Niekerk (DA) enquired about the processes the development of a GMO had to go through and the controls. Professor Parker answered that the National Bioethics Bill addressed all of these issues. It was the obligation of each institution who did biotechnology research to have an Ethics Committee. When someone wanted to biotechnology research, they had to submit a detailed report to this committee who would then ask them how they would address certain issues or reject the proposal. There were very tight controls.

Dr Van Niekerk asked if there was a very big difference between species in terms of the mapping of chromosomes. He said the basic map had to be similar somewhere along the line. Professor Parker quipped that the DNA of man and baboon had 99% similarity. He continued that the differences between bacteria and humans were exploited to ensure that they could regulate genes.

Mr A Nel (DA) enquired about spontaneous gene transfer in nature. Professor Parker said spontaneous gene transfer happened in nature. Parts of human DNA have been found in bacteria. It seemed that there were parts of genes that allowed the transfer. The difference to biotechnological gene transfer was that the process occurred very slowly in nature. Anti-GMO lobbyists said the biotechnologists interfered in a natural process.

Mr T Ramphele (ANC) said the Members had an obligation to make decisions that would not be detrimental to South Africa. He said GMO products caused a decline in exports in the USA. He failed to understand how the introduction of GMOs was going to increase South Africa’s foreign exchange earnings. Professor Parker said it had happened in certain areas that exports declined. There would be resistance resulting in a dip in exports until it recovered and went back to normal. Agricultural GMOs have become politicised. Imports and exports were not necessarily going to be influenced by GMOs; there could be other factors. Changes would come and it had to be seen how it could be accommodated as safely as possible.

Mr Ramphele said there was also the problem of bio-pollution. Professor Parker said there was an instance of bio-pollution in Mexico, but after studies they found that it was not because of cross-contamination, but the press did not report these results. There had to be control mechanisms in place. New techniques have been developed. They way technology has developed would create biological barriers.

Mr Ramphele said it seemed too early to make an assessment of the consequences of GMOs. He asked how long it would take to reach certainty. Professor Parker said with the current technology they were able to detect small changes through tests. They would check 200 aspects of a person by monitoring the person’s biochemistry. This was done over a period of a year or two. They did not have to wait for 20 years to see a product’s effects.

Mr Ramphele said the labelling of GMO products would encourage choice. He said GMOs, by implication, encroached on choice. He asked how Professor Parker thought the matter should be dealt with. Professor Parker did not have any problems with the labelling of GMO products. It would give individuals choice, which would be fair.

Mr J Bici (UDP) had difficulty convincing laymen of the importance of GMOs. They were afraid that GMOs could have hidden effects on people. He asked how people could be convinced that GMOs were good. Professor Parker said it was partly addressed by monitoring. The process was similar to testing a new drug. There was a need to educate. People had to distinguish between education and propaganda.

Mr Ramphele said as soon as you take something produced in a laboratory and put it in the field, there would be issues with the environment. He asked how it would be ensured that GMOs would be beneficial to South Africa’s situation. Professor Parker agreed that they had to be absolutely sure about the safety of GMOs. An economic impact study had to be done. People should not be hardnosed about the topic, but should engage in discussion. Professor Parker could not do an economic assessment; he could only look at it scientifically.

Mr Abram asked if GMOs have been used on humans and, if so, if there had been any adverse effects. Professor Parker said a large number of products have been used and there have been no more detrimental effects than there would have been from the alternative products.

Mr Abram asked what sort of control mechanisms South Africa had at the moment. He asked if there were sufficient mechanisms to monitor what was in the public domain. Professor Parker said there were resources to monitor. There were agricultural inspectors, who did a good job. If a person or an institution did GMO projects they had to be registered with the Department of Agriculture, in addition to adhering to the ethical aspects imposed by the Department of Health.

Mr Abram enquired about drought resistant plants. Professor Parker said the genes were transposed from one plant to another plant. It did not cross species.

Adoption of Minutes
The Committee adopted the minutes for 25 October 2005 and 8 November 2005.

The meeting was adjourned.



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