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South Africa may reconsider GM sorghum permit if proper containment is assured
South Africa
August 3, 2006

The South African government has announced that it may reconsider its stance to deny a permit to the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to conduct laboratory and greenhouse experiments if the Council demonstrates that the sorghum is suitably contained.

“Provided the CSIR can demonstrate to the Executive Council (EC) that the sorghum is suitably contained, it may well reconsider its stance,” Derek Hanekon, the South Africa deputy science and technology minister said.

According to an opinion article in the Business Day, the deputy minister said that given the importance of sorghum and other indigenous crops on the African continent, there was a compelling reason to conduct research in this field. He said the research would “enable the better understanding of biosafety aspects, including the gene flow of indigenous crops, build capacity and skills and ultimately give us insight into better managing our genetic modification technologies”.

The Minister said the decision to turn down an application by CSIR to perform greenhouse experiments on GM sorghum “reinforced the government’s commitment to public safety”. The deputy minister said this commitment was supported by “ongoing efforts to enhance SA’s capacity to harness the potential of biotechnology to benefit the poor”

All decisions on applications for biotech research are taken by the Executive Council (EC), a statutory body established by the Genetically Modified Organisms Act comprising six government departments (science and technology, agriculture, trade and industry, health, labour, and environmental affairs and tourism).

CSIR’s Executive Director, Dr Gatsha Mazithulela, welcomed the government position and said CSIR was working with the relevant authorities to address the concerns related to the sorghum application.  He said the CSIR supported the government’s commitment to public safety.  In relation to the permit application, Dr. Mazithulela said “all experimentation will be conducted in a controlled greenhouse that has the necessary measures to minimize any potential hazards to the environment”.

The minister said the inadequate intake of essential micronutrients by many Africans is exacerbated by arid climates and poor soils that cannot support the food needed to supply these nutrients. “On the climatic considerations alone, it stands to reason that there is a role for more experimental research on indigenous crops. An example is sorghum, one of the few crops that grows well in arid climates, but is deficient in most essential nutrients”.

He said Africa’s ‘orphan crops’ were not of major interest for the big multinational seed companies and “if we want to produce improved varieties of crops that have evolved here we will have to do so ourselves”.  The Minister added that “the failure of the recent Doha round of the World Trade Organization negotiations perhaps also emphasizes the need to develop niche markets and African orphan crops”.

Henekon asserted that the need to conduct this type of research must be balanced with due consideration given to government’s responsibility to ensure that new biotechnology products or services do not threaten the environment or human life, or undermine ethics.

The minister alluded to the possibility that the EC may have raised the bar for approval of the permit because to-date the vast majority of genetic modification work approved by the Council was based on non-indigenous species.

Millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa suffer from health problems associated with poor nutrition, including impaired immune systems, blindness and impaired neuropsy-chological development. It is estimated that in Africa 50 percent of children have a calcium, iron and zinc deficiency; one in 10 infants die before they are 12 months old; one in 10 children suffer from severe malnutrition; and more than one in five are physically stunted due to malnutrition.

The US$18.5 million African Biotechnology Sorghum Project (ABS), funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is aimed at improving nutrition to promote health as part of its Grand Challenges which focuses on improving nutrition levels of bananas, cassava, rice and sorghum. The goal of these challenges is to create a full range of optimal, bio-available nutrients in a single staple plant species.

The project brings together scientific teams from Africa Harvest; agricultural company Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a subsidiary of DuPont; the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa (CSIR), the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) of South Africa; the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and the Universities of Pretoria (South Africa) and California Berkeley (USA).

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