South Africa's Ag Minister overrules Industry and Appeal Board
The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) welcomes the final decision taken by the South African Minister of Agriculture Ms Thoko Didiza, in terms of section 19 of the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Act of 1997, to uphold the October 2021 decision of the Executive Council (EC) that the risk assessment framework existing for GMOs will also apply to new breeding techniques (NBTs). These NBTs make up a host of new genetic engineering technologies.
In a double blow, the Minister’s decision rejects the challenge by a powerful consortium of agricultural industry actors, under the aegis of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa (AGBIZ), which comprises the South African National Seed Organisation (SANSOR) and CropLife, against the decision of the EC in terms of section 19 of the GMO Act, in November 2021. It further also rejects the findings of an Appeal Board, whose membership is secret – constituted by the Minister in terms of the GMO Act – which found in favour of the flimsy and tenuous arguments of the industry.
The South African decision is a significant game changer on the continent, which is facing a strong push to adopt novel GM technologies, such as cisgenesis and intragenesis; RNAi-mediated DNA methylation; agroinfiltration; reverse breeding; and genome editing techniques (CRISPR and gene drives; TALENS; and oligonucleotide-directed mutagenesis). In contrast, Kenya, Ghana, Malawi, and Nigeria have already adopted approaches not to regulate these technologies in terms of biosafety legislation. The positions taken by these countries will face stronger pushback from civil society on the continent, perhaps even leading to reversals.
According to Mariam Mayet, director of the ACB:
“The Minister’s decision translates into a precautionary approach and adherence to biosafety due process regarding the regulation of new technologies. It inherently accepts that these technologies alter the genetic material of plants, animals, and microbes, using synthetic guides, with the express goal of changing organisms’ DNA. Since these novel technologies create new risks and uncertainties, with possibly far-reaching consequences, they must therefore be robustly regulated. Such regulation also encompasses the right to say no based on the precautionary principle. Further, traceability and the labelling of all GMOs are prerequisites for the freedom of choice for both consumers and farmers, and their exclusion from regulation would accelerate the privatisation of seed and its ownership, to the cost of consumers and farmers.”
The ACB, and indeed civil society in South Africa, have been strenuously resisting the advance of these technologies for several years. For us, these NBTs are more of the same as transgenic technologies; providing a new set of false solutions that will undoubtedly continue to exacerbate biodiversity loss while failing to produce healthier, more nutritious, or more diverse food for Africans, and failing to allow for better incomes or fairer prices for farmers.
According to the ACB, these NBTs are intended to function as colonial mechanisms to entrap agricultural and food systems, and secure and capture new markets for industrially produced corporate-owned seed, and should therefore be banned.
The beneficiaries of these technologies are certainly not the people of South Africa but the corporations who own the technologies, whereas farmers will continue to be left vulnerable to changes in the climate and other shocks. Already, the handful of biotechnology companies that dominate the global commercial seed and pesticide markets also dominate ownership of the patents on genome editing technologies.
We continue to reiterate the need to urgently transition to more sustainable, ecologically and socially just agricultural systems based on food sovereignty imperatives.
See ACB’s 2022 blog detailing the government’s decision to regulate NBTs and how the consortium of industry players appealed this decision, here.
The final decision of the Minister was only communicated to the ACB in late January 2024, when the Minutes of the Executive Council meeting were shared with the ACB but not published on the government’s website at the time of this Press Release. This, despite dogged monitoring by the ACB for several months, points to continuing problems with access to timely information for the public.