/ 21 January 2004

GM giants pin hopes on Africa

African countries are coming under increasing pressure from international seed companies to embrace genetically modified (GM) foods, say South Africa’s anti-GM lobby.

“Africa is the last chance for the GM seed companies and that’s why they’re pushing so hard. The European market has closed for these companies — as we’ve seen with [American GM seed giant] Monsanto pulling out of the European cereal market — so they are looking to Africa,” says Glenn Ashton of SAFeAGE (South African Freeze Alliance for Genetic Engineering).

The organisation is the umbrella body for more than 130 local organisations that support an open-ended moratorium on the growing import and export of GM foods. “What we need is food diversity and support for small farmers who are not mono-cropping, not an extension of the industrial model that GM represents,” says Ashton.

Until recently Africa seemed to be maintaining a strong position against GM. The resistance was fuelled by fears that untested foods (including food aid) would be dumped on the continent, non-GM crops would be contaminated, environmental damage would occur and cross-border and international trade, particularly with Europe (where GM foods have largely been snubbed), could be hampered.

But the promise that biotechnology may be the panacea for famine and food security crises, and that it is the ticket for Africa to ride the next wave of modern development, have been convincing sales pitches.

Biotech and agricultural meetings for government and private sector stakeholders held in Nigeria and Zimbabwe late last year enjoyed sponsorship from international pro-GM agencies and it was clear that Africa was being urged to plough more money into developing biotechnology capacity and to garner public support for GM projects.

South Africa is one of the major GM players on the continent. It became one of the first countries in the world to push ahead with the growing of white GM maize for human consumption. But anti-GM environmentalists say the process is not transparent enough and that South Africa shows a strong pro-GM bias.

“The South African government has always been very pro-GM, allowing the biotech companies an extraordinary amount of freedom,” says Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss of environmental action group Biowatch. But she believes a groundswell of opposition to GM foods is beginning to take hold.

“Organisations such as Fawu [Food and Allied Worker’s Union] and Cosatu [Congress of South Africa Trade Unions] have debated the GM issue and have taken a cautionary approach. They are particularly concerned about monopolies and the impact on food sovereignty,” she says.

Environmentalists say more South Africans need to have the necessary information and education to understand the science, to make informed decisions and to take part in debate. However, the government continues to push forward.

According to Dr Julian Jaftha, senior manager of genetic resources management in the Department of Agriculture and Land Affairs, GM maize, soya and oilseed rape have been approved for planting in South Africa. South Africa also grows GM cotton.

“Africa is looking at investing more money for biotechnology in the form of diagnostic labs, maintenance of current infrastructure and human resource capacity building for technology transfer,” says Jaftha. “These efforts are aimed at managing agricultural productivity by reducing potential adverse impacts such as drought.”

South Africa is part of a Southern African Development Community advisory committee that develops guidelines on GM issues. Other African scientists are also trained in South Africa. “In South Africa GM products are subjected to assessments to determine their potential effects on human health and the environment,” Jaftha told the Mail & Guardian. But currently only South Africa and Zimbabwe have bio-safety legislation in place, a prerequisite under accepted international bio-safety protocol, before the planting of any GM crops is given the green light.

Dr Jocelyn Webster, executive director of AfricaBio, a South African biotechnology promotion association, believes capacity is growing and that more African countries are moving to put bio-safety measures in place. “We’re not saying that bio-technology is the only solution for Africa, but it is a strategy that’s in line with the objectives of Nepad [New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development].”

Webster says concerns that large GM seed companies are trying to force open and exploit the African market are not valid. “Their markets are in China, Argentina and North America. The seed sales in Africa are very small by comparison.” She believes genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are safe and thoroughly checked in South Africa. “What we have to ask is how much more risky GM is than conventional food production methods.”

But potential negative effects of GM in the long term remain unknown and Biowatch says proceeding with GM is premature. “Africa does not have the capacity in terms of things such as development and laboratories to proceed with genetic engineering. But we see American companies trying to accelerate the legislation process so they can enter the African market.”

It adds that the refusal by the government to insist on mandatory, consumer-friendly labelling and the lack of tracing mechanisms also makes it difficult to monitor the effects GM foodstuff has on humans, animals and the environment.

Anti-GM activists did bag two victories at the end of last year. In the Biodiversity Bill, currently being drafted, the government reinstated a clause that deals with GMOs. Last November South Africa acceded to the international Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Though Biowatch says the Biodiversity Bill has its flaws, the re-instatement of the clause means that the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism will at least have some oversight on GM issues. Environmentalists argued that it would have been a conflict of interest for the Department of Agriculture and Land Affairs to both promote and regulate GMOs.

In February signatories to the Cartagena Protocol will meet in Malaysia for the Members of the Protocol meeting. “We trust that the South African government will support the position of the African Group. It is critical as Africa is one land mass. South Africa has often been ambivalent and in some cases in direct opposition to the African Group,” says Biowatch.

The chief spokesperson of the Africa Group, Ethiopia’s Terwolde Berhan Egziabher, continues to urge African countries to abide by Africa Model law principles on bio-safety that include upholding the Precautionary Principle and in working for an Africa-wide bio-safety system.