Food safety compromised by lack of glyphosate tests

South Africa is unable to conduct proper tests for glyphosphate residues on food – and until this capacity exists, glyphosate should not be allowed in food production, says Mariam Mayet, director of the African Centre for Biosafety.

The African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) recently released a study titled “How much glyphosate is on your dinner plate? South Africa’s food safety compromised by lack of testing”. In it, we discuss the risks posed by the herbicide glyphosate to human and animal health as well as worrying regulatory failures, particularly in relation to the monitoring, inspection and testing of food for glyphosate residues.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in numerous chemically-based herbicides used in diverse situations including food production and timber production, sports field and home garden maintenance. It is used prolifically in genetically modified (GM) crop production and currently, 77% of maize grown in South Africa is GM and of this, 54% (about 1 million hectares) is modified to be glyphosate tolerant. All GM soya beans planted on 480 000ha in SA is glyphosate-tolerant. SA also imports bulk GM grain from countries growing herbicide-tolerant crops.

Residue risks
There are numerous health risks associated with glyphosate in crop cultivation. Studies indicate that it may be toxic to mammals and could interfere with hormonal function. Our government acknowledges that glyphosate poses risks to human health and thus, glyphosate residues in our food are not allowed to exceed maximum residue limits (MRLs).
The setting of MRLs is based on the analysis of the quantity of a chemical remaining on food product samples.

It is determined by a number of factors, including the minimum effective dose, the standard application rate, the interval between harvest and consumption and climatic conditions that may influence the efficacy of the herbicide. When the ACB tried to have food samples tested for glyphosate residues, we learnt that while there are numerous private laboratories in SA, nine of them accredited with the recognised international standard (ISO 17025), none were able to test for glyphosate residues in our samples of maize and soya products.

Testing could only be done by sending the samples abroad. We were astonished to discover a complete lack of testing for glyphosate residues in local market produce. Local government health authorities are responsible for the inspection and monitoring of imported foodstuffs in terms of the National Health Act. However, municipalities suffer from severe capacity constraints and do not undertake any testing for exceeding the MRLs.

Public access
We believe it is incumbent upon government to make available to the public data on glyphosate residues in food, water, and soil as a result of the introduction of glyphosate-tolerant GM crops. The public should also have access to details of surveillance of glyphosate in food, agricultural and natural systems; the support given to SA labs to establish the requisite capacity to monitor MRLs in our food; and the progress made since the publication of the Pesticide Management Policy with regard to legal reform.

We believe that glyphosate should not be allowed in food production, if no capacity exists in SA to monitor and test for residues in locally produced and imported food. The SA government’s oversight of our food system is fragmented across 14 separate acts of parliament, and administered at all three tiers of government (national, provincial and local).

Three bodies are mandated with developing and enforcing food safety standards: the Department of Health (DoH); Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF); and South African Bureau of Standards’ (SABS) Directorate of Regulatory Affairs and Consumer Protection. Policy implementation has been hampered by a lack of clear demarcation regarding mandates, responsibilities and accountability between the various bodies.

Outdated policy
Government recognises that much of the current legislation regulating pesticide use (insecticides, herbicides and fungicides) is hopelessly outdated and in need of substantial and urgent revision. In December 2010, DAFF published a Pesticide Management Policy for South Africa discussing the Fertilisers, Farm Feeds, Agricultural Remedies and Stock Remedies Act (Act 36 of 1947) and the central law that regulates pesticide use in SA.

The policy acknowledges that Act 36 of 1947 is not consistent with our constitutional rights to an environment that is not harmful to human health; access to information; and openness, transparency, and public participation in decision making.
Although various measures to reform the act are proposed, it seems as if little progress has been made in implementing these.

We have tried unsuccessfully to obtain information from the Registrar of Act 36 of 1947 with regard to the registration, re-registration and review of glyphosate. The public is kept in the dark and is unable to participate in the decision-making process with regard to the re-registration of glyphosate.

Government must urgently disclose when glyphosate was registered and when it will come up for re-registration. We call for an urgent, open and transparent public participation process before glyphosate’s re-registration for use in SA. Outdated legislation must be brought in line with South Africa’s Constitution. – Robyn Joubert

Contact the ACB on 011 486 1156 or visit www.acbio.org.za

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.