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Towards a regional approach to biotechnology and biosafety policies for Southern African Countries: South Africa
October 2005
Rosemary Wolson and Marnus Gouse


Abstract

Developing countries in general, and countries in the Southern African Development Community in particular, are at a crossroads regarding whether or not to embrace rapidly evolving biological technologies and related products, such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In South Africa, an application to the Department of Agriculture in 1989 to perform field trials with genetically modified cotton kick-started the South African biosafety process and initiated the first trials with transgenic crops on the African continent. In 1997, South Africa became the first country in Africa to produce transgenic crops commercially. To date, the commercial release of insect-resistant cotton and maize, as well as herbicide-tolerant soybeans, cotton and maize has been approved. Various studies have shown that large- and small-scale farmers in South Africa have benefited from the introduction of genetically modified crops.

The GMO Act, in conjunction with its implementing Regulations, came into effect on 1 December 1999. It was intended to promote the responsible development, production, use and application of GMOs while limiting potential risks, and laid down the requirements for the importation, production, release and distribution of GMOs. While it appears highly unlikely that South Africa will ever go back on its decision to embrace GMOs, if the current and potential benefits they offer can be sustained and achieved, and the possible risks avoided, flaws in the biosafety regulatory system will have to be addressed.

Although many users of the system believe it is functioning well and point to the absence of any accidents or problems as evidence of this, some observers feel that there are no adequate safety measures in place to prevent or limit damage that might occur in the future. One of the most crucial issues to tackle is the lack of transparency, which is said to breed distrust, expose the system to challenge and, in the long run, could limit the uptake of the technology and prevent it from reaching its potential to solve African problems for African farmers and consumers. This requires that access to information be made easier and that more opportunities for meaningful public participation be provided. At the same time, the rights of private parties to protection of their legitimately confidential information must be safeguarded, and increased public participation must not lead to delays that slow down approvals to an unworkable extent.

Although the GMO Act has only been in force for a few years, amendments have been anticipated for some time and an amendment bill has recently been presented to parliament.

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