Genetically modified (GM) forms of maize, soybean and cotton have been approved for commercial production in South Africa and these crops have become established in parts of the country. Numerous field trials have been approved for additional forms of GM maize, GM soy and GM cotton, as well as for GM sugar-cane, GM potato and GM cassava, among others. At laboratory level (in universities and research institutes), research on drought tolerant GM maize and pharmaceutical production from GM maize and GM tobacco is underway.
GMOs are part of a technology paradigm backed by government, parastatals, industry, universities and agricultural colleges. They are often portrayed as cutting-edge science as a solution to the food insecurity, energy and climate change crises. But GM technology is far more questionable than this picture suggests.
There is increasing evidence of GMOs creating environmental and health risks and having dubious economic advantages: promised crop yields failing to materialize, increased dependency on pesticides, and contamination of farmers’ seeds. There are further problems relating to regulation, public access to information, segregation of GM products – maize developed as a pharmaceutical source, for example, should not be mixed with maize for food; and trade, as many consumers reject GM food. Whether from the perspective of a micro-organism in the root nodules of a GM plant, or a child eating maize porridge, or the farmer whose crop has been contaminated by neighbouring GM maize, there are numerous unanswered questions and difficulties.
The notion of “substantial equivalence” has been proposed in justifying omission of environmental and food safety tests on GM food crops. For example, in both the United States and South Africa, food safety tests need not be done for GM soya because it is considered to be substantially the same as natural soya. South African regulatory authorities adopted the principle without hesitation, and no subsequent studies have been conducted despite evidence that it does impact on both human and animal health. This means that approximately 70% of South Africa’s major food staple is now genetically modified, without it having been tested for potential health effects.
South Africa’s concealed conversion to genetically modified staple food
The first South African approval for the commercial use of a GM crop was for Monsanto’s MON810 Yield Guard insect resistant maize in 1997. Maize has long been the staple foodstuff of the majority of South Africans, and is also used extensively as livestock feed. Today, approximately 70% of our maize crop is GM, yet the change-over was never effectively publicized and most South Africans do not know that they or their livestock are probably consuming a GM product.
Pollen from a field of GM maize can contaminate nearby fields of traditional maize or organically grown maize, with serious consequences for affected farmers. One would think that it would be possible for a traditional farmer who has saved seed for generations, or an organic farmer whose GM-free status is critical for organic certification, to sue the GM seed producer responsible for the contamination, however the very opposite turns out to be the case: it is the GM patent holder who can sue the farmer if GM material is found to be present in their crop without the GMO licence fee having been paid. Having a farmer that grows GM crops as a neighbour can be a risky business!
Seed rights – from farmer to multinational
Farmers have had control over their seeds from time immemorial. It is a traditional right for farmers to save their seed for replanting, or to exchange with other farmers. However GMO seed patents effectively put an end to these age-old practices. The control and ownership of seeds – in the case of GM maize, GM soy and GM cotton in South Africa – passes entirely to multinational corporations that hold the patents, like Monsanto, Syngenta and Pioneer. This undermines farmers’ rights, and places control outside the country.