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 reveals that GM crops are not currently considered a significant threat to biodiversity. It also provides guidance for further developing a monitoring framework, so that the knowledge and ability to undertake subsequent assessments can expand over time.
How was 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.