Growing genetically engineered crops has made inroads into food production and revolves mainly around herbicide tolerance and resistance to insects. The scientific advantages of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) include less frequent application of pesticides, more rapid plant growth, increased food supply at reduced cost, foods with a longer shelf life and, importantly, crops that can withstand climate change elements such as drought.

Scientists believe that it is possible to responsibly develop and use GMOs sustainably, within an appropriate sustainability framework. One of the measures taken to assure this, is that only authorised people in laboratories can reconfigure genes in crop plants or add new genes to it. According to Dr Hennie Groenewald, executive manager at Biosafety South Africa, an even more important aspect to take into consideration is that a GMO must undergo strict risk analysis before it can be approved for commercial use.

GMO cultivation

In South Africa, the number of hectares in the country covered by GMO crops, is estimated at more than 2,3 million hectares. Three commercially grown GMO commodities have been established, namely cotton, maize (85%) and soya beans (95%). Cotton was the first genetically modified (GM) crop to be approved in South Africa and today 100% of locally cultivated cotton is GM approved.

In the rest of the world GMO crops such as potatoes, squash, soya beans, maize, canola, alfalfa, cotton, papaya and sugar beets are becoming commonplace with aubergines cultivated in Bangladesh and poplar in China. The genetically modified arctic apple is one of the more recently added GM specialty products in the US. As a matter of interest, Dr Groenewald comments: “If we also consider the addition of GM ingredients such as canola oil, corn syrup and soya beans to processed foods, then more than 60% of foods in the US already contain GM traces.”

Regulations in South Africa

The regulatory framework for GMOs in South Africa was initiated in the late 1970s by local scientists who put the country on the forefront of GM technology with the aim of creating benefits in terms of:

  • Human healthcare and food production.
  • Protection and sustainable use of environmental resources.
  • Enabling socio-economic development and growth.

In the book, Genetically modified & Irradiated Food: Controversial Issues: Facts versus Perceptions, Dr Groenewald refers to seminal research conducted by Dr Marnus Gouse and colleagues at the University of Pretoria. It was found that smallholder farmers who used certain GM crops, were rating the social benefits of saving time and not having to work with insecticides as a more important factor than deriving direct economic benefits from it.

In South Africa, three commercially grown GMO commodities have been established, namely maize (85% GM approved), soya beans (95% approved) and cotton (100% approved).

“GMOs are potentially novel, living organisms with a genetic trait that may not have been associated with the particular organism previously,” Dr Groenewald explains. “This new trait may impact the way the organism interacts with its environment, for example growing, propagating, or the ability to act as a food source for other organisms. They must therefore be regulated and scientifically assessed for safety reasons before they can be released and consumed.”

He furthermore notes that the cultivation of GMO crops is deemed to be a well-established system in South Africa. “It is functioning effectively and little has changed over the last few years since legislation was passed in respect of the development and use of GM products.”

Assessment and approval process

Activities relating to GMOs in South Africa are primarily regulated under the Genetically Modified Organisms Act, 1997 (Act 15 of 1997). The act aims to provide for measures to promote the responsible development, production, use and application of GMOs while emphasising the balanced and accountable approach of the regulatory framework.

According to the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD), the act regulates the following:

  • Field trials: Small-scale field experiments to evaluate the performance of GMOs in the local environment.
  • Commodity clearance: Use of a GMO as food, feed or for processing, but excludes the planting of a GMO.
  • General release: Use of a GMO as food, feed, processing and planting.

This leads to an evaluation process in accordance with the act, which consists of the following:

  • Public notices for field trials, commodity clearance and general release applications are published by companies for the information and inputs of the general public.
  • Companies submit applications for a specific event to the registrar.
  • Applications are reviewed by a scientific panel known as the advisory committee (AC).
  • Decisions to permit an activity or not are taken by the executive council (EC), which is an intergovernmental decision-making body. The EC considers the recommendations of the AC, compliance with various policies and comments from members of the public or interested parties.

Table 1: Timeframes for the evaluation of applications for GMO approval.

ApplicationNumber of days
Trial release of GMOs120
General release of GMOs270
Commodity clearance of GMOs270

Risk analysis

It is up to each country in the world to decide how they want to use and regulate GMOs. However, there is a designated regulatory unit for GMOs used across the world, referred to as a ‘GM event’, which indicates a genetically unique GM individual.

Each GM event must be approved by the national regulatory authorities of the country to where it is imported or in which it is cultivated. “The GMO events that have been commercialised in South Africa, have therefore been subjected to the regulatory requirements and scrutiny of various other countries as well,” says Dr Groenewald.

A summary of all GM events that have been approved for commodity clearance and general release in South Africa, as well as imports that have been issued, are available in a permit list published on the DAFF website.

Sustainability of GMOs

GMO sustainability is divided into the following biosafety components:

  • Food/feed (health) and environmental safety.
  • Its viability components, namely socio-political (governance) and techno-economic feasibility. The latter refers to wide-ranging issues such as the existence and requirements of the national biosafety regulatory framework, the economic viability of the product, stakeholder and consumer preferences, possible market impacts, diversity and choice in the market.

Interesting facts

  • The GMO Act regulates GM events through the issuance of permits containing permit conditions, which the permit holder must adhere to and which do not regulate labelling.
  • Food/feed properties such as toxicity, allergenicity and nutritional value are examined and evaluated.
  • The food safety aspects of GMOs are governed by the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, 1972 (Act 54 of 1972) and the Consumer Protection Act, 2008 (Act 68 of 2008).
  • Once a GM event is approved, it can be further bred into any cultivars (e.g. of white or yellow maize, cotton or soya bean) at the discretion of the seed companies involved.
  • Commodity import permits are also issued for the importation of GM consignments, provided that the exporting country has also approved the GM event for cultivation.
  • Countries’ approval of GM events are published on the Biosafety Clearing House website, to ensure that everyone has access to all relevant information.

A contentious issue

The adoption of genetically engineered foods remains a contentious issue across the world, with many consumers believing it is changing the food they eat, while others believe it is all about commercial gain.

Linzi Lewis, a research and advocacy officer at the African Centre for Biodiversity, claims that climate change will outlast the coronavirus and that the world desperately needs to rethink agricultural practices such as GMOs in view of current climate, biodiversity, pest and health crises. “It should seriously consider shifting gears towards biodiverse and agro-ecological practices that protect wild spaces, ensuring more nutritious, appropriate and adaptable systems built on resilience and food sovereignty,” she says.

She also voiced concerns regarding new GMO maize seed varieties: “These are responsible for increased weed resistance to herbicide use and it requires ever more toxic chemicals, resulting in massive environmental consequences. Even with a well-established regulatory system, scientists have been unable to monitor the negative environmental and socio-economic implications of GM production and industrial agriculture.”

In response, Dr Groenewald says that GMOs do not use herbicide or insecticides any differently than how it was registered under the Fertilizers, Farm Feeds, Agricultural Remedies and Stock Remedies Act, 1947 (Act 36 of 1947). This is a separate act that evaluates the safety of such products subject to defined parameters.

Did you know?

Bananas, peanuts, Surinam cherries, hops, cranberries and tea, all contain the agrobacterium microbe – the very same bacterium that scientists typically use to create GM crops.

For more information, contact Dr Hennie Groenewald at hennie@biosafety.org.za or visit www.biosafety.org.za or www.acbio.org.za and www.drdlr.gov.za for more information.
Carin Venter, FarmBiz