Are GM Crops the Answer for Africa? (Technology)

By Nevin, Tom | African Business, February 2002 | Go to article overview

Are GM Crops the Answer for Africa? (Technology)


Nevin, Tom, African Business


While the developed world is polarising between two camps - those for and against - genetically modified food, where does the developing world stand on the issue? The implications for the future, either way, are immense but the lack of sufficient information on GM is clouding the issue. Tom Nevin throws light on a subject that so far in Africa has remained in shadow.

For those who worry about Africa's precarious ability to feed itself, genetically modified (GM) production of crops is a development born in heaven. For those who are concerned that playing God by tampering with microbiotics and venturing into other little-known biological regions, genetic modification equates to lighting the fuse to a time-bomb.

Proponents of GM say the development could result in crops that require little or no water, are resistant to pests and disease, and yield more per hectare in both size and quantity in a way that facilitates harvesting and processing both for labour-intensive cropping as well as mechanised means. This sounds idyllic, but is this feasible?

"Yes, it is," says Muffy Koch, a biotechnology and biosafety consultant based in Johannesburg. "Although GM plant breeders feel they have mostly exhausted the potential to improve major crops using within-species genetic diversity, the advent of sciences where genes can be moved between species opens new opportunities for crop improvement. "But this," she tells African Business, "is desirable only when the new solution is more sustainable and environmentally friendly than existing methods."

Koch concedes that there is valid concern about potential toxicity, lower nutritional value and antibiotic resistance in bioengineered crops but that this is adequately assessed in biosafety reviews - the precautionary approach in practice. "This is supported by the fact that more than 35 GM crops and over 100 GM enzymes and additives are being used world-wide by more than 1.3bn people without a single safety incident - the biosafety process is working," she points out.

The case against

GM antagonists, such as Biowatch South Africa, claim that there is a lack of proper testing by the developers of the technology, but Koch doesn't agree. "Testing is reviewed by independent experts in each country where the product is to be released," she maintains. "If the tests are inadequate, additional data is requested until the reviewers are satisfied that the risk has been adequately assessed and management conditions, where needed, will minimise any potential risk."

What about later on, asks Biowatch, when GM foods are introduced into the food chain? No testing procedure exists that properly assesses the health effects of GM foods, thy say. Responds Koch: "Implementation is no different to other new foods, except that GM foods have a compulsory risk assessment phase."

According to Biowatch, South Africa already has a Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Act in place (December 1, 1999), but before these regulations were even promulgated, "at least 20% of the cotton and 5% of maize grown was already genetically engineered; more than 200 permits for GMOs have been granted without a biosafety regime in place and not a single environmental impact assessment carried out".

Koch argues otherwise. "The government set up an interim biosafety process in 1989, which set the standards and procedures for the GMO Act," she says. "All approvals prior to the implementation of the GMO Act were issued under the Pest Control Act. All approvals under the Pest Control Act and under the GMO Act require input from the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) and these officials review the applications in light of their environmental impact legislation. Each biosafety review is an environmental impact assessment and if it is adequate, in the eyes of the DEAT, approval is recommended, if not, approval is withheld."

Over 200 field trials and 11 years of testing have led to approvals for only four GM events. …

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