Biotech in SA: the good and the bad

South Africa�s adoption of biotech crops has been prolific, with 57% of our maize planting area currently occupied by GM maize. However, farmers� apparent confidence isn�t shared by all consumers and researches, partly because of the lack of consumer

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South Africa’s adoption of biotech crops has been prolific, with 57% of our maize planting area currently occupied by GM maize. However, farmers’ apparent confidence isn’t shared by all consumers and researches, partly because of the lack of consumer education and communication, as well as contrasting results on the benefits and negatives of biotechnology. David Steynberg investigates.

The latest figures for SA’s area planted with the three biotech crops, namely maize, soya beans and cotton stands at 1,8 million hectares. According to the latest report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA), this makes South Africa the world’s eighth-biggest producer and one of 13 biotech megacountries growing 50 000ha or more of biotech crops. Since 2001, South Africa has increased its adoption of biotech crops by 1,6 million hectares and between 2006 and 2007 alone, experienced a 30% rise in plantings. “This illustrates the confidence thousands of South African commercial and emerging farmers, as well as consumers, have in crop biotechnology,” says president of Agri SA, Lourie Bosman.

This optimism is, however, not shared by all. Many consumers fear the health and safety risks posed by consuming foods containing GM ingredients. But GM foods are more thoroughly tested than regular food. “The safety of the cultivar must be assessed before it’s released, taking into consideration any changes in composition, nutrition, allergens and toxins,” says Dr Wynand van der Walt, senior partner of Agricultural Biotechnologies and of FoodNCropBio. “Regulatory authorities have to be satisfied with the safety of the cultivar before it’s released, making it a very proactive system. This is different from many of the foods you currently find on your plate, which undergo a more reactive system of only testing once problems occur.” Prof Chris Viljoen, head of the GMO Testing Facility at the University of the Free State, says that while no conclusive reports have shown GM foods to be unsafe, there’s concern that it may still be too early to tell whether GM foods will have a negative effect in the long term.

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“I believe that GM technology has a role to play, but it may have been oversold by biotech companies,” says Prof Viljoen. “Many farmers have been sold on a promise, but their prices are not determined by yield alone – prices are symptomatic and are influenced by international trends.” In a press statement released last year by Biowatch South Africa concerning the health impacts of GM maize already approved in South Africa and Europe, it was suggested that regulatory authorities have relied too much on the judgment of the biotech industry in evaluating the potential risks of these foods. Assurances of the safety of GM crops by biotech companies are not based on substantive evidence. However, according to Bosman, “This [GM] maize has been consumed, in one way or another, every year by 40 million South Africans without any substantiated medical or scientific adverse effects manifesting in humans, animals or the environment.” Prof Viljoen uses the analogy of nicotine in cigarettes, where in the 1950s no negative health effects were identified. “Safety assessments are meant to identify acute toxicity,” says Prof Viljoen. “The long-term impact won’t be evident in the short term. What we need are generational studies as accumulative problems occur over a longer period of time.”

In a report released by the Friends of the Earth International (FoEI) the negative effects on plant and soil health is supported by Kansas State University agronomist Dr Barney Gordon who found that glyphosate (Roundup) applied to glyphosate-tolerant (Roundup Ready) soya beans inhibits the uptake of manganese – important for plant health and performance. ccording to the FoEI, other scientists also report that glyphosate absorbed by Roundup Ready soya beans is leaked from the roots and spreads throughout the surrounding soil. Glyphosate can alter the soil microorganisms, such as nitrogen-fixing bacteria, vital for nitrogen absorption in plants. Glyphosate inside Roundup Ready plant tissues can make essential minerals unavailable to the plant, which results in increased disease susceptibility and inhibition of photosynthesis.

The FoEI goes on to state that leading agricultural scientist Dr Charles Benbrook concluded, in a study using US Department of Agriculture data on pesticide use from 1996 to 2004, that adoption of GM soya beans, maize and cotton had led to the use of 122 million more pounds (55 339t) of pesticides than would’ve been applied if these GM crops had not been introduced. In the case of herbicides, the report attributes increased use to the rise in glyphosate applications on Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops. By 2005, glyphosate use on GM soya beans, maize and cotton increased to 119 071 million pounds compared with 7 933 million pounds in 1994 – a 15-fold increase. This substantial increase is attributed to the widespread use of Roundup Ready crops, combined with the emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds, which prompts farmers to use even greater applications of glyphosate, and in turn increases the evolution of glyphosate resistance. “Already there are reports in South Africa of insects developing resistance to pesticides,” says Prof Viljoen.

Developments in the pipeline

The FoEI also states that the biotechnology industry, in a decade of commercialisation, hadn’t introduced a single GM crop with increased yield, enhanced nutrition, drought-tolerance or salt-tolerance. However, these developments are already in the pipeline, with the first drought-tolerant maize variety expected for commercial use by 2011 – field trials are already being conducted in South Africa. According to seed giant Monsanto, which has been given permission to test the gene under South African conditions, the pros of the technology include yield benefits and stability, flexibility in water management, reduced water consumption, cost savings, reduced pressure on fresh water resources and reduced soil erosion. Enhancing the nutritional value of food crops is, however, more difficult. “It’s complicated as you then have to work with the metabolic pathways,” says Van der Walt. “South Africa is, however, involved with developing a more nutritious sorghum variety.” Despite GM technology being sold on the promise of increased yield and thus meeting food insecurity concerns in the developing world, the problem remains with distribution, according to Prof Viljoen. “The EU and the world as a whole produce a surplus of food, but the problem has always been getting it to the people who need it,” he says. “This is something that GM technology can’t fix.”

Consumer ignorance

South African consumers have not been provided with scientific evidence about whether GM food is good or bad for human health. This, together with a plethora of contrasting opinions, has resulted in consumers’ negative perceptions. President of the South African Women’s Agricultural Union Anphia Grobler says, “We appreciate efforts by the Department of Science and Technology to conduct public awareness under their Public Understanding of Biotechnology Programme, but urge government to get other departments to be represented on the GMO executive council, and to engage in consumer education by explaining how their departmental legislation helps ensure biosafety.” In South Africa, labelling of foods containing GM ingredients is not compulsory. Estelle Randall, communication coordinator for Biowatch South Africa, confirms that in July last year, parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Environmental Affairs and Tourism held a public hearing where it was suggested that compulsory labelling should be considered to give consumers a choice of whether or not they’d like to consume GM foods. “The labels need not indicate that the GM ingredients could be harmful, but merely indicate that GM ingredients are or could be present,” she says. There are no independent studies to show that GM crops are not a long-term risk to the well-being of humans, animals and the environment, according to Biowatch SA. This is despite South Africa devoting 57% of its planting area to GM maize – a staple food. Monsanto’s insect-resistant cultivar MON810 and herbicide tolerant NK603 are two of the GM maize varieties that we consume. In early January this year, MON810 was found to contain a novel gene that had a negative impact on flora and fauna, and was subsequently banned in several European countries including France, pending a peer review by the European Commission to decide on the validity of the scientific claims. The cultivar was banned in France based on environmental concerns such as the impossibility of preventing the dissemination of GM maize into the environment and the possibility of toxic effects on non-target organisms. Austria, Greece, Hungary and Poland have followed suit.