Modified maize hits our shelves

Activists opposed to genetically engineered (GE) foods have slammed the Department of Agriculture and Land Affairs for issuing permits allowing the growing and release on to the South African market of the world’s first GE white maize.

The South African Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering (Safeage) accuses the department of acting unconstitutionally in approving the release of the maize.

“That this far-reaching and highly controversial decision was taken without public participation, something that is a fundamental principle of the National Environmental Management Act, makes the decision not only undemocratic but illegal and unconstitutional as well,” said Safeage national coordinator Gillian Kerchhoff.

Safeage asserts that GE foods technology holds profound dangers for the environment, biodiversity and health.
Safeage further claims that no environmental impact assessment was undertaken before approval was granted for release of the maize.

Department officials conceded that some GE white maize has been released, but downplayed its importance, claiming the maize sold here had been the yield of only 2000ha.

“Yes, some GE maize has already gone on the market, but you have got to take into account that the maize in question has not yet been grown on a large scale, contrary to some allegations,” said Dr Shadrack Moephuli, the official in the department whose office is responsible for the licensing of companies to develop GE foods.

Moephuli said he sees no dangers with the GE food grown in South Africa as a rigorous procedure to ensure the safety of the consumer must be adhered to, in accordance with the Genetically Modified Organisms Act.

One of the requirements for any would-be GE foods developer is to apply to the department for the type of crop to be grown. Before the developer is given a permit it is required to place advertisements in the media inviting public comment.

When the data is assessed a field trial permit (for about three planting seasons) is issued. After the experimental stage of planting is over, a permit allowing the commercial farming of the crop is issued.

“So as you see, it is extremely inaccurate for anyone to claim that there never was any debate on the issue,” said Moephuli.

But Safeage maintains the government has been less than fully open, citing numerous examples when the government has been unwilling to engage on proposals and to heed calls for a moratorium on GE technology.

“Calls by Safeage and numerous other organisations like the Food and Allied Workers’ Union to introduce a moratorium on the importation, development and release of GE crops have been ignored up to date,” said Safeage spokesperson Glenn Ashton.

Ashton accuses the government of pandering, without doing proper research, to the “solely profit-driven needs” of biotechnology companies.

Inquiries indicate the agriculture department has issued a general release permit to the controversial multi- national GE foods developer, Monsanto—a permit Moephuli asserts the department has re-evaluated to determine food and environmental safety.

South Africa is yet to sign the international treaty regulating the possible hazards stemming from biotechnology—the Cartagena Protocol.

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