The biowatch bulletin - march 2006

The Biowatch Bulletin
March 2006
1. RESEARCH ON HEALTH EFFECTS OF GM CROPS TO START IN SOUTH AFRICA The Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Testing Facility at the University of the Free State is preparing to embark onmajor research on the health effects of GM crops. Professor Chris Viljoen who heads the facility – the only one of its kindin South Africa – made this announcement at a pubic talk about consumer choice which Biowatch South Africa organisedon 29 March.
“We will be doing basic feeding trials using a variety of animals and existing, approved genetically modified (GM) crops,”Viljoen said.
“For example we’re planning to use lambs from birth to death – one group will be fed GM maize and the other non-GMmaize.”He said the feeding trials with animals should take about three years to complete. After the initial animal feeding trialsthe testing Facility would look at general allergic responses in humans.
Viljoen noted that studies of the GM crops which have been released and commercialised show there are no long-termnegative impacts.
He added: “But I don’t consider those studies to be definitive. There are not enough studies and many scientists don’tunderstand general concerns from the public. They take these concerns to mean that people are anti-science.
“Within the scientific community there isn’t enough open debate because some scientists feel there is enough safetyconcerning GM and others feel there isn’t.
“But the basic science that should be done (on this issue) has not been done. Science has left it up to the seedcompanies themselves,” Viljoen said.
He said his stance was to be “obtusely neutral” because he needed to do research which produced data which spoke foritself.
The motto of the University of the Free State’s GMO Testing Facility is: “Serving public interest without serving interestgroups”.
GM crops have been in South Africa since 1997 and the Free State University’s GMO Testing Facility has been monitoringfood products for the past three years.
According to Viljoen: “Three years ago we battled to find any GM presence in the foods we tested.
“But now the results of tests we conducted last year on soy and maize products show that 90% of soy products and61% of maize products tested contained GMOs. That’s despite South Africa only growing 50% of GM soy, 10%GM whitemaize and 24% of GM yellow maize.”He attributed the diffusion effect of GM in the food chain to lack of awareness among farmers of the need to separateGM and non-GM crops.
But there is also a very low level of South African consumer awareness about GMOs. Possibly this is linked to limitedscope for consumer preference because of the lack of regulations to provide for compulsory labeling of GM food.
However, South Africa is among eight countries in the world, which are growing GM crops commercially. And in terms ofworldwide distribution of the commercial growing of GM crops, South Africa ranks eighth, with about 1% of the country’sagricultural land under GM crop cultivation.
Internationally, the countries, which have mandatory labeling for GM, are Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, China, theEuropean Union, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan and Thailand.
However, the percentage of GM presence, which requires labeling, differs. The European Union, Israel, Russia andSwitzerland require mandatory labeling if foodstuffs contain 0.9% or more GM traces. In Australia, New Zealand, Brazil,China and Saudi Arabia the threshold is 1%. In South Korea it is 3% and in Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan and Thailand thethreshold is 5%.
Canada and the United States of America have only voluntary labeling in the case of a GM trace of 5% or more.
South Africa has no compulsory labeling of GM products.
Viljoen noted that the University of the Free State’s GMO Testing Facility had specifically avoided looking for thepresence of unapproved GM in South Africa, for example Bt10 maize which has an antibiotic resistant marker and whichgot mixed up with approved Bt11 maize shipments to Europe.
“But we would be happy to do such tests if we were contracted to do so,” Viljoen said.
The public discussion was the third that Biowatch South Africa has organised as part of its intention to raise awarenessabout GM crops.
2. GROWTH IN SOUTH AFRICA’S ORGANIC AGRICULTURE SECTOR Latest information from Organics South Africa indicates that South Africa’s organic producers are seriously expandingtheir market.
According to Organics SA, the sector earned about R155 million in 2005, compared to about R3 million in 2003.
There are just over 200 certified organic operations in South Africa, says Organics SA, and about 77% of these went intoorganic conversion over the past four years.
A total of about 515 000 hectares is under organic farming. About 500 000 hectares of this total is used for pasture beefcattle, about 11 000 is used for growing rooibos tea and the rest is used for growing fruit, vegetables, some grains andessential oils.
The largest organic crops are rooibos tea, bananas, grapes and apples. South Africa’s largest organic exports are tablegrapes and beef and the main export markets are the United Kingdom and the European Union. But there are alsoexports to the United States of America and the Middle East.
3. NEW BOARD MEMBER FOR BIOWATCH SOUTH AFRICA TRUST Sakhile Sifelani has joined the Biowatch South Africa board with effect from 2006. She obtained a masters degree intrade and investment law in April last year and works as a researcher for judges of the Cape High Court. Born inZimbabwe, Sifelani has been living in South Africa since 1999 when she started a law degree at the University of theWestern Cape.
4. SA MILK PROCESSORS WANT GM GROWTH HORMONE TO BE OUTLAWED The South African Milk Processors Organisation has decided to formally oppose the use of rBST (Recombinant BovineSomatotropin), the genetically engineered growth hormone, in dairy herds. The hormone is used to increase milkproduction but, according to market research, South African consumers do not support its use.
SAMPRO has said that research indicates that most dairy cows in South Africa are not treated with rBST and the legaluse OF rBST is out of keeping with consumer preferences and some of the South African dairy industry’s export markets.
The growth hormone is used legally in the USA but is banned in Canada and some European Union countries.
(Farmer’s Weekly, 10 March 2006) 5. INTERNATIONAL TREATY ON ACCESS TO BIOLOGICAL RESOURCES A STEP CLOSER? Access and benefit sharing over biodiversity has been one of the main issues at negotiations at the United NationsConference on Biological Diversity in Brazil this month. One point of contention is whether there should be aninternational regime to regulate access to genetic resources and the distribution of benefits which get derived from theircommercialisation so that holders of traditional knowledge get a fair share of such benefits.
Highly industrialised countries, such as, those in the European Union, the United States of America and Japan havecalled for more studies on the possible effects on the production chain of such a binding international policy.
The debate on these issues is being thrashed out in the context of two patents granted in the United States of Americabetween 2000 and 2002 and another for which an application has been filed.
The controversial patents involve a high-altitude Andean plant called “maca” which is used by indigenous people in Peru.
One of the patented “maca” products is said to raise testosterone levels, acting as a natural Viagra.
Then there is the toxin, found in the skin of the Monkey Frog in the Amazon region, for which several companies,universities and researchers in the United States of America have filed for patents. The frog’s secretion has traditionallybeen used for medicinal and ritual purposes.
In South Africa there is the case of the hoodia plant which was used by the San as an appetite and thirst suppressant,especially during hunts. After intense negotiations a formal benefit sharing agreement was signed betweenrepresentatives of the San and the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
6. LANDMARK DECISION ON INTERNATIONAL TRADE IN GM PRODUCTS Countries, such as South Africa, which are party to the Cartagena Protocol on Biodiversity will have four years toimplement a rule on the labeling of genetically engineered organisms which are traded internationally.
A meeting of parties to the Protocol this month resulted in 132 countries agreeing that shipments containing geneticallymodified organisms (GMOs) must state this and identify which organisms are present, their intended use and how theyhave been modified.
If it is not possible to identify the GMOs, shipments must carry a label stating that they “may contain” GMOs.
The Cartagena Protocol on Biodiversity is part of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity and is intended toprotect biodiversity and human health from potentially harmful effects of GMOs by regulating their international trade.
Parties to the Protocol will meet again in four years time to assess the labeling rule’s implementation.
The United States of America and Argentina – two of the world’s largest exporters of GM products – are not party to theProtocol.


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