Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Amendment Bill: hearings

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Meeting report

AGRICULTURE AND LAND AFFAIRS PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
18 January 2006
GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS (GMO) AMENDMENT BILL: HEARINGS

Chairperson

Ms D Hlengethwa (ANC)

Documents handed out:
 

South African Catholic Bishops Conference submission.
Free Market Foundation of SA submission
University of Western Cape submission
Widlife Environment Society of SA submission
Bio-Safety and Regulatory Platform in South Africa submission
Surplus People Project submission (please see appendix)
South Africa new economics network
South African Council of Churches submissions
Biowatch SA submission
Organics South Africa submission
Genetically Modified Organisms Act [No 15 of 1997]
Genetically Modified Organisms Amendment Bill [B34-2005]

SUMMARY
The Committee heard submissions from different stakeholders on the Genetically Modified Organisms Amendment Bill. Most submissions wanted the GMO industry to be transparent with their products labelled clearly and with proper regulation of the GMO industry. Some members felt that the GMO industry was not conducive to the growth of emerging farmers as farmers would be forced to purchase seeds from the GMO companies rather than relying on their own seed-banks. Most of the submissions were not against GMOs but wanted the issue of liability clearly spelt. However the companies that stood to benefit from the GMO industry did not want to be held liable for any potential damage to humans or the environment. Members could not understand the reason that GMO producers did not want to label their foodstuffs.

MINUTES
South African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) submission
Ms F Harrison, SACBC Researcher, said that the Catholic Church was opposed to man tampering with nature. Protection should be exercised regarding the potential consequences of GMO. She said that the Promotion of Access to Information Act guaranteed the rights of citizens to information. The role of the Portfolio Committee would be to ensure that all GMO foodstuffs were clearly labelled. The SACBC supported the Government's attempt to regulate GMOs. It was vital that people were given adequate information to make informed decisions. She said that the Government should not hastily embrace GMOs without necessary information and proper regulation. The GMO companies were refusing to be liable for the potential harm that could be caused to the environment and humans

DiscussionMr S Abrahams (ANC) asked why animal breeding was largely ignored in the debate. He wanted to know what was the SACBC views on genetic modification of livestock. He felt that humankind had benefited from medical research and cited the example of diabetics who were dependent on insulin to lower their blood sugar levels.

Mr K Roussel (Researcher, SACBC) replied that there was a difference between artificial insemination and genetically modified meat which had unnatural substances. Emerging farmers who had relied on GMO were struggling because they could not afford to pay for the seeds. Organic farmers on the other hand could manage to sow their fields using their own seeds from their seed-banks. South Africa had to be careful that it was not responsible for an environmental disaster in the region.

Ms B Ntuli (ANC) asked for clarity on labelling and the Promotion of Access to Information Act with regards to GMO.

Ms Harrison replied that biotechnology companies should clearly label their products and inform the public about the hazards of genetically modified foodstuffs. The Promotion of Access to Information Act entitled citizens to information on their foodstuffs.

Mr Ditshetelo (DA) asked about benefits that would be accrued by emerging farmers from organic farming.

Mr Harrison replied that emerging farmers would be producing healthy food which would not harm the environment, organic farm products were in demand throughout the world and they were profitable.

Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa submission
Ms S Ralston raised following concerns about the GMO Amendment Bill. The Society felt that the requirements with respect to public participation and access to information were inadequate. Officials were called upon to exercise their discretion in implementing the Act, without adequate guidance. The Amendment Bill did not respect the "polluter pays" principle nor did it observe the precautionary principle. The Bill did not promote the freedom of choice nor enable the monitoring of the potential impact of the GMOs.

Discussion
Mr B Radebe (ANC) asked for suggestions on possible means of informing the public about the impact of GMO.

Ms Ralston replied that labelling of all GMO foodstuffs would enable people to have a choice on whether to buy them or not. The GMO Act enabled the appropriate officials to enlist public participation before issuing a permit for GMO foodstuff.

Adv T Ramphele (ANC) enquired whether it was possible to monitor and assess all GMO foodstuff. He wanted to know what could be done to turn the tide that was flooding the developing world.

Ms Ralston replied that monitoring could be done by labelling and tracing the paper trail of GMOs and their derivatives.

Mr R Ainslie (ANC) asked about the tools which could be used to apply the "precautionary principle". He wanted to know what were the flaws with the existing research. He enquired about the reason that traditional Africa farming was not compatible with GMOs.

Ms Ralston replied that the precautionary principle was important because GMOs were new as compared to natural organisms that had taken thousands of years to evolve. There was a possibility of the environment being harmed and there was a need for a holistic approach to the issue. Traditional African farming had always relied on seed banks that were kept after the harvest. GMO farmers are required to purchase seeds every time they had to sow their farmland.

Freemarket Foundation briefing
Mr T Nolutshungu, Director: Freemarket Foundation said that the economic consequences of increased regulation would have a retarding effect on potential economic growth. The economic and welfare gains that could be achieved from allowing as much innovation as possible would increase the efficiency of agricultural production.

Discussion
Mr B Radebe said that the Government had a responsibility to ensure a citizen's rights were protected. They could not allow multinationals to do as they wished, thereby possibly jeopardising the environment. He felt that the Mr Nolutshungu's submission was off the mark. He cited the example of nuclear energy which continued to hold billions of lives at risk.

Mr S Dithebe (ANC) said that he could not understand why the Freemarket Foundation was against regulation without offering any alternatives.

Dr R Rabinowitz (ANC) asked the reason that the Freemarket Foundation looked at short term profits and ignored long term damage to the environment and humans. She asked the purpose of subjecting emerging farmers to perpetual dependence on seed companies. The role of a democratic government was to safeguard the health of citizens.

Mr Nolutshungu replied that the people who wanted to block the development of bio-technology had a vested interest. Throughout history, humans were reluctant to adapt to new developments. That was caused by the fear of the unknown and biotechnology was relatively new. He urged the Committee to look beyond the initial fears and embrace GMOs. The challenges faced by South Africa were different from those faced by developed countries. South African should not reject GMOs just because they were rejected by the European Union.

Plant Bio submission
Ms K Legoape said that her organisation was proposing the establishment of a bio-safety strategy and regulatory platform. Small start-up companies lacked the resources to manage regulatory submissions. Most companies had no knowledge of bio-safety laws. The regulatory platform would manage the regulatory submissions on behalf of smaller companies.

Discussion
Mr Ainslie asked the meaning of bio-safety. Ms Legoape replied that bio-Safety referred to measures that were taken to ensure that all GMO foodstuffs and plants released into the environment would not cause any harm to humans and the environment.

Mr Radebe wanted to know what measures could be taken to ensure that input by the public was increased. Ms Legoape replied that public input was inadequate. All the stakeholders had to come up with suggestions on the issue of public participation.

Department of Biotechnology, University of Western Cape submission
Dr W Stafford, Head of Centre for Advanced Research for Microbiology, said that the GMO crops that were released on the market had to fulfil certain requirements. These were that:
- there had to be efficient and specific gene targeting to cells.
- stable, single integration of gene had to be done at a defined site.
- there should be normal levels of expression of the desired gene.
- all GMOs had to be proven beyond reasonable doubt to be safe.
The crops which were available on the market had not fulfilled any of the above. There was very little published research on GMOs in South Africa.

Discussion
Mr Radebe asked whether Dr Stafford supported the view that liability should fall on the producer of a particular product. He cited the example of a vehicle driver who caused an accident; that driver would then pay dearly for his accident.

Dr Stafford replied that GMO producers were refusing to take responsibility for their products.

Mr Dithebe said that scientific evidence should serve as a warning about the potential fatal consequences of GMOs.

Adv Ramphele asked about the capacity of the relevant authority to handle damage control. He was concerned about the inherent environmental damage caused by incorrectly labelled GMO maize.

Dr Stafford replied that some GMO producers were conducting their in-house tests, but the tests were not published. There were no safety measures in place. He felt that the Amendment Bill could enable GMO to be tracked and labelled.

Dr Rabinowitz asked about the kind of measures that were in place to inform the public concerning the inherent dangers. She asked about the availability of a paper trail so as to be able to trace the guilty party.

Dr Stafford replied that labelling and tracking was one way of informing the consumers about the potential harm of GMOs. Currently GMO foodstuffs were not labelled. They hoped that the Amendment Bill would address those problems.

Mr Ainslie enquired about the effect of insect resistant GMO seeds on the environment. Dr Stafford replied that GMOs were herbicide tolerant. Some even resulted in neurological disturbances.

Grain SA submission
Mr N Hawkins, Senior Economist: Market Research, said that his organisation was vehemently opposed to the liability clause as it was in the Amendment Bill. The party that held the licence for the GMO should be the one that was liable for damages. The fact that the GMOs were legal, indemnified the farmer of any liability.

Discussion
Mr Abrahams asked for the percentage of grains farmed in South Africa that were GMOs. Which GMO products that were sold to the public were clearly labelled?

Mr N Hawkins, Senior Economist, Market Research replied that his organisation merely sold labelled seeds to farmers and did not have the capacity to do labelling for the end-product sold by farmers. About 35% of maize was GMO while the rest was organic. He said that farmers did not label their products GMO or GMO free because they were not obliged by law.

Mr P Holomisa asked about the difference in nutritional value of GMOs as compared to organic maize. Mr Hawkins replied Grain SA had not done studies on nutrition, but researchers had conformed that both organic and GMO maize were nutritious.

Monsanto submission
Mr W Green, Biotechnology Regulatory Manager, said that his organisation had never forced anyone to use GMOs. Their seeds were clearly labelled and their product was highly nutritious. Some people were scare-mongers who equated GMO with nuclear fallout. GMO did not cause any danger to the environment. Emerging farmers could save lot of money by using less herbicide. GMO would improve food security for millions of starving people.

Mr Abrahams enquired about the reason that every time they had to plant, the emerging farmers had to buy seeds again from GMO companies because the seeds from their previous GMO harvest would not reproduce.

Mr Green replied that Monsanto did not engage in what was known as "seed closure" but other companies did that. Emerging farmers who used Monsanto seeds could use their own seeds from the previous harvest.

Mr Ainslie asked the reason that Monsanto was not willing to accept liability for their products. He cited the Indian Government which had issued a banning order for GMO seeds because that seed was regarded as a pollutant.

Mr Green replied that his company did not apply "seed terminate technology", people ate GMOs every day without harmful effects. He said that every company had a self regulatory mechanism. All the information that was gathered during their research was published and made available to the appropriate authorities.

Discussion
Mr Abrahams commented that Monsanto was a commercial organisation and their research was not independent and reliable. He asked why GMOs seeds were not reusable. He asked if there were any organisations that were responsible for verifying Monsanto's in-house research.

Mr Green replied that seeds that were kept after harvesting were freely available but the confidential information was withheld due to intellectual property rights. The Registrar of all GMOs played a significant role as a regulator

Adv Ramphele suggested that Monsanto and other GMO companies should be accountable to a regulatory body. He asked the reason why emerging farmers could not use GMOs. He commented that there was no country in the whole world which had liability laws for GMOs.

Mr Green replied the legislation empowered the Department of Environmental Affairs to assess the environmental impact of all GMOs. He said that Monsanto had been conducting workshops for emerging farmers showing them the advantages of using GMO seeds.

Surplus Peoples Project submission
Mr R Jacobs, Research Co-ordinator, said that the Amendment Bill's approach to public participation was very limited. The Bill left a substantial amount of discretion to the executive level. The emerging farmers were adversely affected by GMO technology, they could not afford to purchase seeds. That was indicated by case studies in developing countries. His organisation was concerned about the much-touted view that GMOs led to higher input costs. That could push a lot of farmers out of agriculture, which was their only source of livelihood.

Discussion
Mr Abrahams asked for more information on the negative impact of GMOs to emerging farmers as shown by case studies. Mr Jacobs replied that the information would be made available to members at a later stage

Adv Ramphele asked whether Mr Jacobs was aware of any workshops conducted by GMO producers for emerging farmers. Mr Jacobs replied that they had never heard of any awareness programmes.

Meeting adjourned.


 

Our concern with the Bill is also the level of understanding of the current Act by people who are affected by the Act. Small scale-farmers also lack information that further constrain and inhibit public participation. The state has a responsibility to explain this legislation and the potential impact it will have to grassroots people.

 

(2) Impacts on Emerging Farmers and Farmers in general

 

The Bill is not clear with regards to socio-economic and environmental impacts. These assessments in our view should be at the discretion of the Executive Council. The assessments should form part of the process before authorization is granted by the Executive Council. This will assist farmers to anticipate the potential impacts. Studies in other countries and case studies have pointed out that the introduction of GMO’s has affected small-scale farmers adversely. The Bill further raises a number of questions that in our view should be addressed before farmers and society in general are exposed to the introduction of GMO’s.

 

Thus the Bill should further address the following concerns:

 

     

  • What impact will the Bill have on emerging farmers?

     

 

     

  • To what extent does GMO’s lead to higher input cost which raises the cost of production to small-scale farmers. This could potentially push a lot of emerging farmers out of agriculture which is a major source of livelihoods

     

 

     

  • To what extent would GMO’s lead to further the cycle of debt for farmers as demonstrated with case studies in Kwazulu Natal?

     

 

     

  • What are the potential impact on biodiversity and sustainable development in South Africa?

     

 

Thus, SPP, propose that the portfolio committee consider provincial public hearings where emerging farmers and communities are given the opportunity to give inputs. The public hearings should also in detail explain to communities the possible impacts and effects of GMO’s on sustainable development and biodiversity.

 

Ricado Jacobs

Research, Information and Advocacy Coordinator

Surplus People Project

Tel: 021 448 5605

Fax: 021 448 0105

Email:

Website:

 

 

 

WWW.spp.org.za
Ricado@spp.org.za

 

APPENDIX

SURPLUS PEOPLE PROJECT

SUBMISSION TO PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE ON AGRICULTURE AND LAND AFFAIRS

18 November

Surplus People Project (SPP) is a Non Governmental Organisation (NGO) that facilitates land and agrarian reform in the Western and Northern Cape. SPP’s main objective is to transform rural areas in order that poor black men and women can gain access to, and ownership of, land, natural resources and development opportunities that will substantially improve their livelihoods and social and economic rights. In this regard SPP work with approximately 51 small- scale farmers in the Northern and Western Cape Provinces.

 

The introduction of the Genetically Modified Organisms Amendment Bill in our considered view has the potential to undermine current efforts of land and agrarian reform. In this regard SPP would only want to deal with two issues in the Bill:

 

(1) Public Participation

The participation of citizens in the legislative process particularly since it has the potential to impact on their health and livelihoods. The current Bill’s approach to public participation is very limited and also leaves a substantial amount of discretion to the Executive Council (section 5.2).

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