Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Amendment Bill: briefing

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Meeting report

AGRICULTURE AND LAND AFFAIRS PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
19 January 2006
PUBLIC HEARINGS ON GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS A/B [B 34-2005] : DEPARTMENT BRIEFING

Chairperson:

Ms D Hlengethwa

Documents handed out:

Public Hearings on GMO’s (PowerPoint Presentation)

SUMMARY
Members from the Department of Agriculture, Science and Technology, Health and Environmental Affairs and Tourism briefed the Committee on issues regarding the public hearings on the Genetically Modified Organism Amendment Bill. General concerns that were discussed were the precautionary approach, the protection of indigenous seeds, biotechnology in South Africa and scientific safety assessments. Issues that were discussed regarding the Amendment Bill were environmental impact assessments, labelling regulations, liability and redress, as well as sections of the Bill.

Committee members were mostly concerned over the labelling of genetically modified products, the monitoring of processes, the protection of indigenous seeds and the possibility of mandatory environmental risk assessments taking place. The Committee also wished to know if the public were able to make an input in the assessment process of the Advisory Committee and the impact that genetically modified organisms had on the South African economy.

MINUTES
The Chairperson pointed out that there had not been a chance over the previous two days for the positions of political parties on genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) to be highlighted. The week from 23 to 31 January had been set aside for political party workshops. She suggested that the current week be used for political party consultations and that the outcomes be reported to the Committee for deliberation.

Committee members concurred.

 


The Chairperson invited the Departmental delegation to begin their briefing.
 

Departmental Briefing

 


Dr J Jaftha (Senior Manager: Genetic Resources Management, Department of Agriculture) introduced the presenters and highlighted the topics that would be covered by the briefing. He briefed the Committee on two general concerns. Firstly, he discussed the precautionary approach, which was based on principle 15 of the Rio Declaration in 1992. The GMO Act had implemented through risk assessment and management and did not include the precautionary approach. He spoke about the protection of indigenous seeds and referred to the conservation, characterisation and storage of indigenous seeds and the issue of farm saved seeds.

Mr B Durham (Manager: Biotechnology, Department of Science and Technology) spoke generally about Biotechnology in South Africa. Generally opinions on biotechnology were extremely polarised. What was disturbing was that innocent bystanders were being recruited to promote certain extreme viewpoints. Two theories existed concerning biodiversity. Firstly, there was the risk theory which argued that as the world modernised, both wealth and access to information grew. Risks therefore became more global, which meant that both the wealthy and the poor were subject to these risks. People became more aware of these risks and were more averse to them. The outlook of biotechnology was not good.

The second theory was the infusion of innovation theory. It argued that there were a number of phases regarding innovation. The first phase saw an adverse reaction and rejection of innovation but acceptance occurred in the final phase. There was merely a time-dealt issue and GMOs would therefore eventually be accepted.

South Africa has its own Biotechnology Strategy which would potentially improve the country’s economic wealth and benefit all socio-economic groups. Life itself would be used to produce goods and services. However the bottom line was that there were a number of risks. These included known risks that could be assessed and dealt with and unexpected consequences such as existing properties in a plant being modified unexpectedly by an additional property. However, this is prevented by ensuring that any approved GM product has satisfied the substantial equivalence requirement.

Very few transformation events see the light of day. However, transformation experiments undertaken by students at universities show that not only experienced scientists apply technology these days. Large seed companies have often toured universities in order to see if they can take advantage of experiments. However, this created a problem of monopolistic companies that are not interested in regional needs.

South Africa therefore had its own National Biodiversity Strategy which was concerned with local capacity development, innovation and South Africa benefiting from South African intellectual properties; and which was focused on South African issues.
 

He responded to claims made over the previous days’ public hearings. Firstly, regarding the claim that GMO crops put farmers in debt he urged the Committee to read a Journal article titled "Technological triumph but institutional failure" on the Makhitini BT cotton growers. Secondly, he stated that it was not true that there was no policy environment for the GMO Act as a number of other pieces of legislation and policies existed of which the GMO Act was merely an addition. Thirdly, additionally properties added would not affect the nutritional status of the food. He agreed that long term monitoring on the impact of GMO’s needed to occur. Although he was in favour of GMO labelling, less than one percent of the population wanted information on GMO’s. Lastly, it was vital that the GMO Act ensured greater access to information as there was nothing to hide due to South Africa being of the opinion that benefits outweigh risks.

Concerns over implementation and risk management needed to be addressed. However, it was important that overregulation did not occur. It was vital that a local biotechnological sector be created in order to provide solutions for local problems.

Mr M Sibara (Chairperson of the Advisory Committee on the GMO Act) discussed the issue of scientific safety assessments. Members of the Advisory Committee came from a number of sectors and were appointed by the Minister of Agriculture. The Committee required assistance and was made us of sub-committees, that attended workshops in order to learn what the Advisory Committee was looking for regarding the assessment of risks. He then explained the application process whereby GMO applications were sent to the Registrar who submitted them to the Advisory Council after checking that they met the requirements of the GMO Act. A recommendation document was then compiled by the Advisory Committee and sent to the Executive Council. The Executive Council considered the application along with the recommendation of the Advisory Committee and referred its decision to the Registrar who then implemented it.

Ms L Sello (Chief Directorate: Biodiversity And Heritage, Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism) discussed issues raised during the public hearings that were directly related to the Department’s mandate, which was mainly to ensure environmental responsibility. This was done through a number of pieces of legislation including Section 78 of the Biodiversity Act 10 0f 2004. Provisions for monitoring the impact of GMO processes were contained in Section 11(1)(b) of the Act. The Department planned to provide guidance on a monitoring framework and also laid out an environmental impact assessment process. The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, together with the Department of Agriculture, was considering the institutional arrangements for handling the environmental impact assessment process. Lastly, the Department facilitated its mandate through the Executive Council of the GMO Act.

Ms M Selematsela (Assistant Director: Chemical Safety Sub-directorate, Department of Health) briefed the Committee on labelling regulations. The Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act empowered the Minister to make regulations prescribing the manner in which foodstuffs should be labelled. Regulations relating to the labelling of GM foodstuffs were published in 2004 and were based on the Codex Alimentarius principles. "Food rules" were established in 1962 and the Codex Committee on Food labelling developed guidelines on GM food labelling since 1995. A number of mandatory requirements as well as voluntary claims exist with regard to GM food labelling. However, the labelling of GM foods is not mandatory. Studies in Australia, Canada and the Philippines have shown and increase food costs due to labelling.

No provision existed for non-GM claims. However, an identity preservation system was planned to preserve the identity of non-GM food and products by segregating them from GMO products during handling and processing. Current regulations could be regarded as an interim measure pending the finalisation of an identity preservation system and progress at the Codex Committee on food labelling.

Ms Ratuli (Department of Agriculture) briefed the Committee on the issue of liability and redress. The existing liability regime was based on common law and had a number of gaps.

Discussion
Mr S Abrams (ANC) highlighted the importance of the Committee listening to all sides of the story. The Committee needed to consider all it had heard over the last few days and then decide on the truth. It was important that the Bill met the needs of the entire society and was therefore balanced. Some of the arguments that had been presented during the public hearings had been contradictory to what he had read over the years. It was problematic when information was given which was not backed up by trials and tests.

Dr R Rabinowitz (IFP) felt that none of the presenters had intended to mislead the Committee. Much of the evidence that had been given by independent scientists had been substantiated around the world. She acknowledged that the situation would be easier if sides could debate with each other in order to establish the truth. However, this could not occur due to the controlled Committee environment.

She wished to submit a document written by Dr Harry Steinman argued that genetic matter from a bee that was not considered an allergen became allergenic when injected into a pea. This evidence was extremely problematic and could be added to a host of other problems such as environmental damage and damage to local farmers. It was up to Government to assess these risks.

Ms E Ngaleka (ANC) noted that Mr Durham had stated that it was not only GMO’s that had led to indigenous seeds being endangered. If this was true, what could the Government do to ensure indigenous seeds were protected in the future? She also observed that the Department of Science and Technology was only focusing on non-indigenous crops. She asked if there would be a focus on indigenous crops at a later stage and if so what would this process entail?

Mr Jaftha confirmed the Department’s commitment to the protection of indigenous seeds. He believed that social and cultural changes led to a changing environment which had an impact on traditions and led to people moving away from using indigenous seeds. This obviously affected indigenous seed preservation. The Department of Agricultural concentrated on the collection, characterization and storage of indigenous seeds and did this with the collaboration of provincial departments. Although it was impossible to cover all areas, the Department did have a list of known plant species which was formulated in terms of its importance with regards to food security. He welcomed Committee members to visit the National Gene Bank. Another process of conservation also existed which was the challenge to convince farmers to maintain indigenous seeds. This "in situ" preservation led to plant species evolving through the natural selective pressures. However, Millers were often not interested in buying indigenous products due to the difference in texture meaning that different milling processes were needed. This was a further example of people moving away from indigenous seeds. The Department was not sophisticated enough to commence the conservation of indigenous breeds of species. However, there were a number of processes the Department had become involved in such as returning the status of farm animal genetic resources.

She wished to know if it was justifiable to say that as there was no public interest in GMO labelling that this labelling did not have to take place. Was it not the responsibility of government to keep the public informed at all times?

Mr D Dlali (ANC) agreed that the Committee were custodians of the various constituencies. People were entitled to know what they were buying and if there were cost effects he wished to have a detailed breakdown of these effects. Were there no other mechanisms that could be used to offset these burdens of costing such as the Minister of Finance looking into rebates to absorb these costs?

Mr B Radebe (ANC) requested that the journal article mentioned by Mr Durham be acquired by the Committee before future deliberations. He highlighted that the Constitution stated Government had to protect all individuals. One percent of 44 million who read labels was a big number that could not be ignored. It was extremely important that individual rights were protected. He also highlighted that the export of GMO products was extremely important for the economy of the country. The consequences of not labelling GMO products on the economy also had to be considered. He enquired where the monitors were situated in South Africa and how they completed their work.

Ms Selematsela replied that studies showed that labelling costs would be the equivalent of nine to ten percent of the return price of food products. The results of this study would be made available to the Committee in the future.

Mr A Ainslie (ANC) highlighted the fact that Parliament was a parliament of the people. The Committee there had to make an effort to hear from the public. He was pleased to see that small farmers from across the country had been requested to present their opinions and evidence to the Committee. Some of these farmers had been excited while others had been concerned over the new GMO Act. He therefore found that the Mr Durham’s comments that only the opinions of scientists should be taken into account deeply regrettable.

He queried the evidence presented to the Advisory Committee regarding the actual use of GMO’s in the field. Was the evidence verified by the Committee and if this did not happen what was the reason for this? Was this evidence available for public scrutiny and was input by the public encouraged by the Advisory Committee.

He referred to Ms Selematsela’s briefing on GMO labelling and concurred that this matter was extremely complex. He welcomed the material offered by the Department of Health so that it would be available for future deliberations. Lastly, he understood that the use of BT11 in maize had been cleared in South Africa for human consumption while the use of BT10 had been banned. He wished to know if there was any chance that confusion had led to BT10 being used instead of BT11 in South Africa. Had potential confusion been brought to the attention of the Advisory Committee?

Mr Jaftha replied that the Executive Council was aware of the potential presence of BT10. However, there was no reason to believe that it was actually present. Samples were continuously taken and tested to determine if there was BT10 contamination.

Mr Durham responded that it had not been his intention to convey the idea that the public had to be excluded from public hearings. He felt it was extremely important that the public be allowed to express their opinions to the Committee.

Ms M Vosges (Department of Agriculture) replied that often information presented to the Advisory Committee was confidential in nature. Two documents would therefore be presented to the Committee. One of these documents contained the confidential information while the second document did not contain this information and it was therefore disclosed to members of the public. The evidence or information presented was assessed and verified by the Committee itself on the basis of its own knowledge and international knowledge.

Mr Ainslie argued that this confidentiality prevented effective public input.

Ms Vosges responded that the bulk of the information presented was usually not confidential and was therefore disclosed to the public. Provisions in the Promotions of Access to Information Act ascertained which information was confidential.

Ms Ratuli highlighted that this Act was promulgated as a result of the right of access to information in the Constitution. However, this right had to be weighed against the interest of third parties. For example information on businesses could be used by competitors.

Mr Ainslie disagreed and argued that it meant that the public did not have the information it needed at its disposal.

Mr Jaftha replied that the Committee tried to make information known as widely as possible usually through public newspapers. In the case of general release applications this information had to be made available nationally.

Dr A Van Niekerk (DA) enquired who monitored the GMO process. Were there full time inspectors and was the knowledge needed to carry out this monitoring available. Which Department was responsible for this monitoring? Lastly, he wished to know if the impact assessments were contracted to private institutions. He requested more information on this matter.

Mr Jaftha answered that the Department of Agriculture was responsible for ensuring compliance with GMO regulations. However, long term impact monitoring was the responsibility of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. GMO impact on trade was the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry. A representative of this Department had been unable to attend the briefing. The impact on trade would be discussed in future deliberations.

Ms Seelo added that a provision on monitoring of GMO processes had been included in the Act but it was a function which meant greater capacity to carry out this monitoring had to be built in the future. The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism envisaged that this monitoring capacity would be built within the Institutional arrangement itself. The amendments of NEMAC allowed the Minister to be able to appoint environmental management inspectors. Her Department as well as the Department of Agriculture were investigating ways to capacitate inspectors to perform monitoring regarding the GMO impact on the environment. An important point was that this monitoring took time. She also noted the importance of appointing an independent assessment specialist. It was important that Government itself did not become an assessor as it was required to make the final decisions based on these assessments.

She highlighted that the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism did not work alone. Legal provisions existed in National Environmental Management Act which established a Committee on Environmental Coordination. This Committee has various sub-committees in which a number of Government Departments such as the Departments of Water Affairs and Forestry take part. There are therefore various mechanisms in place to ensure the involvement of various Government Departments. The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism hoped to improve the functioning of these Committees in the future.

Mr Durham highlighted that when GMO’s were first introduced there were a number of risks involved. However, the immediate risks had been adequately dealt with which meant that attention needed to be turned towards the long term risks involved. The assessment process proposed by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism therefore needed to be applied.

Mr T Ramphele (ANC) pointed out that a great deal of what had been discussed over the last few days was meant only to be dealt with at the inception of the delivery of the Bill. There was therefore clearly a tendency to be overzealous and it was important that there would be more interaction in the future regarding what the Bill aimed to achieve. It was clear that attempts were being made to align the Bill with the international community and this process was extremely important. However, an obvious gap still existed which needed to be dealt with.

He was also concerned over the inconsistencies that existed between the documents presented by the Department of Science and Technology and its briefing as these inconsistencies confused the Committee. An example was the fact that indigenous animals and plants were not welcomed by South African producers and consumers which obviously lead to commercialization problems and this meant GMO processes were vital. However, the Department’s briefing then stated that indigenous plants and animals were well protected in South Africa. The documents stated that there was not enough human capacity to implement Biodiversity processes. However, the Department’s briefing stated that there was adequate capacity to strengthen biodiversity in South Africa. A further problem was that legislation that was created often differed a great deal to what actually existed in the field. He felt that the Department’s did not take the role of Parliament seriously as they expected Parliament to pass pieces of legislation that often contained a number of inconsistencies. It was extremely important that the Department coordinated their documents with what they presented to the Committee so that inconsistencies were prevented in the future.

Mr Durham replied that the National Biotechnology strategy had been published in 2001. Since then there had been substantial development in this biotechnology sphere. For example, there had been the creation of three Biotech Regional Innovation Centres situated in Cape, East coast and Northern Central regions. The Institute of Plant Biology which was a national innovation centre and the National Bio Informatics Network had also been established. These institutions had been created, became established and were funding specific innovative projects. This meant that the establishment phase had ended.

The National Biotechnology Strategy still believed that in order to develop a growing bio-economy in South Africa there needed to be a strengthening and development of new capacity, skills and technologies. This strategy had resulted in a number of developments that had largely changed biotechnology in South Africa. It was important to note that this strategy was a living document that needed to be reviewed and revised in order for it to adapt to the forever changing environment.

Mr Dithebe (ANC) stated that the Committee had to guard against entering debates dealing with the issue of Bio-piracy as it was not necessarily an issue that had to be dealt with during these deliberations. He also wished to know how the Department of Science and Technology along with the Department of Agriculture would deal with the precautionary approach in practice. As at the end of the day these Department’s were responsible for the administration of the Act.

Ms B Ntuli had a question regarding the issue of liability and redress. She felt it had not been made clear who was expected to carry this burden and she therefore sought further clarification on this issue. She was also concerned over Mr Sibara’s briefing on the Advisory Committee. She supported the fact that members of the Advisory Committee were profiled in a specialist manner. However, she was concerned over the workshops that were given for the sub-committees. She felt that these workshops led these sub-committee members to be channelled in a particular direction and not to be free or independent. This was a risk that should be avoided by allowing members to do their own investigations and come up with their own suggestions.

Mr Sibara answered that he was unaware of the criteria the Minister used when appointing the nine members of the Advisory Committee. However when using himself as an example he had a degree in agriculture and a honours and masters degree in microbiology as well as a doctorate. Other members on the Committee had similar expertise. He argued that the workshops given to the sub-committees were not aimed at channelling them in a particular direction. These workshops aimed to help members realize what was expected of them.

Dr R Rabinowitz (IFP) had a number of concerns regarding labelling. The Department of Health’s briefing gave the idea that labelling would merely be fooling the public into believing that they were being protected. Although one could not state that a product was GM free, the label could say no GMO’s. However, the small print stated that this meant that less than 0.5% of the product was genetically modified. The public did not know this and would therefore believe that the product was completely GM free. A second issue was who decided that less than 0.5% was acceptable. She felt that legislation should rather be put in place to allow organic producers whose products contained no GMO’s to be able to state that their products were GM free.

She further highlighted scientists working for the Department could no longer be considered independent and that a great deal of their evidence contradicted the evidence presented by independent scientists. For example the Department of Science and Technology had stated that it undertook tests for allergenicity. However, only a small number of known allergens were tested. Secondly, although indigenous material was not being used in the GMO process it did not guarantee that cross pollination would not occur. She also argued that even though South Africa could not afford not to develop biotechnology, it could also not afford not to develop organic farming or indigenous plant biotechnology. Both these two fields were being sacrificed to develop biotechnology.

It also seemed that there were not enough people to monitor the impact and effect of GMO processes and most importantly whether BT10 was present in the country. She also felt that the benefits of GMO were mostly short term and commercial while the risks involved were long term in nature. Lastly, she supported the responsibilities of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. However, these responsibilities took place after the effects of GMO processes had been felt. There was no requirement for a mandatory environmental assessment to be undertaken regularly. It was extremely important that mandatory environmental impact assessment actually occurred in the field and not just merely on paper. Relying on the assessments and research made by other countries was problematic as it often did apply to South Africa’s ecology.

Ms Selematsela responded that GM free claims were regulated by the general labelling regulations not the GM regulations. These regulations were based on the Codex principles. One of these regulations was that labels on foodstuffs had to be truthful and not misleading. It was possible that both labels on GM and non GM foodstuffs could be truthful and yet still be misleading. For example a GM free food could say no GMO’s which was misleading as no genetic modification had taken place at all.

Ms Seelo agreed that the Department’s responsibilities tended to be reactionary rather than proactive in nature. It would be extremely difficult to make a mandatory application of impact assessments on the environment as often other assessments were undertaken such as the impact of GMO’s on health as well as other types of trials. However, provisions in the GMO Act require an impact risk assessment where an independent person is appointed to perform this assessment. This is then evaluated by the Department through the Executive Council. However, this still appeared to be a paper exercise.

Mr Durham replied that the Department’s main concern was to ensure that the GM products that were released were substantially equivalent in all ways possible to the non GM original. With regards to the risk of cross pollination, at this stage there had only been a release of non indigenous GMO’s such as maize, cotton and soya. These three plants had no wild relatives in South Africa which meant that there was little risk of gene transfer to wild relatives. South Africa would only develop indigenous GMO’s when there was no risk of cross pollination.

Ms E Ngaleka (ANC) felt that the legislation of the Department of Health was old and outdated. For example, the "Food rules" had been established in 1962. To what extent had these pieces of legislation been reviewed in the past?

Ms Selematsela replied that the Foodstuff Act was old but it was currently undergoing amendments and that these had been proposed to the Committee on Health recently. The Codex standards were also operational through a number of Committees including the Committee on food labelling. This Committee met annually and the Department of Health made sure it included the outcomes of these meetings in its regulations.

Mr Jaftha added that although Codex had been established a while back it had always been a continuing dynamic process. Various developments had occurred in the past due to the development of the food industry and this had occurred at a regional and international level.

Mr A Ainslie (ANC) suggested that Mr Steinman’s paper be proposed to the Committee in the future. He asked why only scientists were chosen to be members of the Advisory Council. Cultural, ethical and religious issues played a role in this field and had to be dealt with which meant that experts from these fields should be included in these Committees so that a balance existed.

Mr Jaftha responded that the Lunder Biodiversity Protocol made provision for a roster of experts to assist developing countries to have access to these experts in GMO application. South Africa was currently in the process of submitting South African experts to be added to this roster. A number of non-governmental organisations had also been engaged on the administration of the GMO Act and interaction with the National Council of Traditional Healers had also occurred. Applications submitted at the advisory level were usually evaluated in terms of scientific application. Applications at the Executive level were also assessed in terms of its social and cultural impact. The Executive Council was free to make use of advisors and experts in the GMO field.

Mr S Holomisa (ANC) felt that with regards to the issue of labelling the interests of the public had to be protected. He believed that the lack of enthusiasm shown by producers towards labelling GM products was due them worrying that it would deter the public from buying them. He also wished to know who was responsible for the issue of liability. He felt that while the producer had to make the consumer aware that a product was genetically modified, the consumer also had to be aware or responsible for the known and unknown risks involved. He though had hoped the Department of Trade and Industry would also have attended the meeting so that it could brief the Committee on how GMO’s affected the country’s markets especially with regards to the European Union markets. Lastly, he wished to know if it was possible to revert back to the use of indigenous seed after GM seeds had been used.

Mr Jaftha answered that there was no reason why a person who had planted GM seeds and wished to revert back to unmodified seeds could not do so. He pointed out that he was not an expert on the subject of trade. As international trade was extremely complex the Department of Trade and Industry should rather be requested to provide this information to the Committee in the future.

Ms Ratuli replied that although the other parties in the production chain were not absolved, the GMO Act stipulated that the user had to be aware of the risks of causing damage to the environment or health by using a GMO product. The Act therefore relied on the common law principle which states that he who causes damages must pay.

Mr A Ainslee (ANC) referred to the Department of Health briefing. He stated that the Department had to realize that the Committee wished to hear arguments from all sides so that it could then make up its own mind regarding the labelling situation. The Committee therefore did not just want information on how costly and impossible labelling was but also information on companies that that do label non GMO products.

The Chairperson stated that a document on Biodiversity would be distributed to the Committee.

The meeting was adjourned.

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