Genetically Modified Organisms Assessment

An initial assessment of impacts on biodiversity from GMOs released into the environment in South Africa (2021 report)

Quick access links to products relating to the 2021 assessment:

  • Access the full report here:
  • Watch the release presentation here: link to SANBI YouTube channel
  • Download the Key Facts document here: OPUS link
  • Download a document of Frequently Asked Questions here: OPUS link


Genetically Modified Organisms in South Africa

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are defined as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination –  i.e. the change is obtained through the use of modern biotechnology. GMOs are usually associated with agriculture (crops) and agricultural products. However, other uses of the technology include the health sciences and pharmaceuticals sector.

South Africa has an annual total of approximately 2.74 million hectares under GM crop cultivation. Thirty-two general release approvals have been granted under the GMO Act in South Africa; 27 of these are for three GM crops, while five are animal (poultry) vaccines. A total of 10 GM crops have been granted trial release permits in South Africa, however cotton, maize and soybean remain the only commercialised GM crops in South Africa.


Why the report

The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) is one of the few biodiversity institutions globally that has a specific national mandate to monitor and report on the impacts of genetically modified organisms. The function, as set out in the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act (NEMBA, Act 10 of 2004) and its amendment, stipulates that SANBI is to ‘monitor and report regularly to the Minister on the environmental impacts of all categories of genetically modified organism, post-commercial release, based on research that identifies and evaluates risk’.


SANBI therefore presents this 2021 report as the first assessment for South Africa on the current status of genetically modified crop field trials and general releases in South Africa. This report should provide guidance for setting up a framework that can be further developed, so that the knowledge and ability to undertake subsequent assessments can expand over time.

How is the report undertaken

This initial assessment was led by SANBI. The lead and contributing authors came from the following institutions: SANBI, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), BiosafetySA, the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP), Biosciences & Consulting, North West University and the University of Fort Hare. Non-profit organisations such as the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) and Biowatch South Africa contributed in various sections of the report and played a significant role in showcasing the concerns about GMOs.

Structure of the report

The assessment focuses on the impacts on biodiversity resulting from GMOs released into the environment. The assessment includes a possible framework approach that would make provisions for indicators to allow for reporting on the impacts of genetically modified crops on biodiversity, and also assesses the current state of knowledge to compute those indicators.


Chapters 1provides the context for the assessment of the potential impacts on biodiversity. A brief overview of other concerns that are often raised about GMOs is also included for context. Chapter 2 explains the current national legislative instruments and the biosafety regulatory system for the research, development and safe use of genetically modified organisms in South Africa. Chapter three presents the status and trends of trials and general releases in South Africa.


Chapter four details the documented impacts on biodiversity drawn from both national and international literature, and outlines identifies knowledge and data gaps for future research.


Chapter 5 concludes by exploring trends for future technological developments. As the field of modern biotechnology is constantly evolving, the case-by-case and the adaptive management approaches to decision making are key principles of the way forward for the responsible use of genetically modified organisms in South Africa.

How the report is utilised

It is anticipated that this first assessment will inspire consultative processes to identify action plans for filling data gaps, improving access to pertinent information, undertaking of further research and monitoring, improving capacity building, and building cooperative networks of all institutions involved in this subject area. An active approach to improving these issues will pave the way for future more robust assessments that are based on ample scientific evidence.


Contact details

More information on the SANBI GMO Assessment Unit is available here; and the Unit can be contacted by emailing:

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