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Genetically Modified Organisms Assessment

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:

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.
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.

  • Chapter one provides 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 two gives an overview of 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 focusses on the impacts of GM crops on biodiversity. Information is drawn from both national and international literature. Knowledge and data gaps for future research is identified.
  • Chapter five 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 for the responsible use of GMOs in South Africa.

How the report is utilised

This assessment report is expected to initiate consultative processes to address data gaps, improve data access, conduct further research and monitoring, enhance capacity building, and establish cooperative networks of all institutions involved in GMO regulation and development. Cooperative planning of policies, strategies, and regulatory frameworks is necessary to mitigate potential adverse effects of GMOs in the environment. Engagement among various stakeholders and regulatory bodies is needed to enable access to information and enhance integration of SANBI-mandated monitoring into the regulatory process.

Taking a proactive approach to these challenges will pave the way for more rigorous assessments based on extensive scientific information in the future.

Contact details

More information on the SANBI GMO Assessment Unit is available here; and the Unit can be contacted by emailing: gmoassessment@sanbi.org.za

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