By Althea Mac Quene
South Africa is one of the few African countries going ahead with GM crops.
Today, more than 350 000 hectares of genetically modified (GM) crops are growing in South Africa . Permits have been given for GM yellow maize, soya, cotton and white maize. Maize is a staple food for many South Africans. Currently over 175 genetically modified organism (GMO) field trials are growing potatoes, tomatoes, wheat, canola, eucalyptus, apples, soya beans and sweet potatoes in our land.
No environmental impact assessments have ever been carried out. The Department of Agriculture has ignored demands from non-governmental organisations (ngos) for information thereby disregarding the constitutional right to access to information.
What are GMOs?
GMOs are organisms whose genetic makeup has been changed by the insertion or removal of small fragments of genes or genetic material in order to create or enhance particular characteristics. This process is called genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering is one form of biotechnology – technology used to affect the natural and biological processes of living organisms. Biotechnology, which involves techniques such as selective breeding of livestock and the development of vaccines, has existed for centuries.
Genetic engineering is new since it is about the artificial (unnatural) transfer of genes between species that result in transgenic organisms or crops.
These are the reasons why environmental organisations are opposing GMOs.
Long term effects of GM are unknown
In Europe , consumers are saying genetically engineered food is a risk. Present understanding of genetics is still very limited and scientists do not know the long term effects of releasing these unnatural organisms into the environment and into people’s diets. Once these new life forms have been released into the environment, it is almost impossible to reverse this.
Some of these potential dangers are:
new allergies will develop. Par Lindqvist, an environmentalist with the Forum for Regenerative Agriculture Movement cites a case where a gene from a para nut was transferred to a soyabean to make it more resistant to drought. People who were allergic to nuts and subsequently ate the oil from the GM soyabeans, reacted strongly to it.
Often when GM seeds are manufactured, toxins like Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT), are injected into maize and cotton seeds so that they will withstand pests. However, research is showing that these GM seeds leak the toxin through their roots into the soil. No-one knows how other insects or animals that eat plants grown in this soil will be affected by this.
Pesticides that must be used with GM seeds, like Roundup-Ready, to ensure a successful crop, not only destroy the harmful pests but also destroy other important insects that help the environment like butterflies.
Studies have shown that the pesticide also pollutes the ground water.
GM technology is controlled by multinational companies driven by profit rather than environmental safet y.
The single most worrying factor in the world of genetic engineering is that the science is controlled by multinational companies who we know care very little about biosafety and the environment but are more concerned with their profits.
GM seeds are patented and this prevents farmers from saving seed.
GM seeds are patented and are the property of the company that creates them for 20 to 30 years. Farmers who buy these seeds may not share them with neighbours or save seed from their crop to plant the following year. When they buy the seed they must sign a contract that they will not replant the seed. If they go against this contract, the seed company can take action.
In the United States (US), Monsanto has forced some farmers to destroy their crops because they did not keep to the agreement.
Even if they do keep to the contract, but their GM crop fails for some reason, the farmer may fail to have enough money to buy seeds again for the next year’s sowing.
This is the main reason why many African countries have banned GM crops. They fear that farmers will become caught in a debt trap and that indigenous farming will be destroyed. GM crops also rely on intensive use of herbicides. All of this requires cash which subsistence farmers do not have.
GM seeds have a terminator virus that automatically prevents farmers from saving seed.
Lindqvist reports that Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs) have been registered by the largest multinational companies.
One type of GURT uses what is called ‘terminator technology’. This produces, says Lindqvist, “second generation sterile seeds that will not germinate if they are not treated with a chemical, provided by the company, that switches off the terminator trait.”
Companies say they are doing this to prevent GMO seeds from spreading in the environment. Other kinds of GURTs require certain chemicals, often made by the same company that makes the seeds, to grow successfully.
Some GM seeds are genetically engineered only to survive if they are sprayed by chemicals produced by the company that produces the GM seed. This gives too much control to these companies over seed production.
Monsanto is a US multinational that produces agro-chemicals (pesticides and herbicides). It is responsible for more than 90% of the total global GM crops.
Their most famous GM seed, called Roundup-Ready (RR), is a seed engineered to withstand Roundup. Roundup is a chemical that Monsanto produces that kills weeds (herbicide) and almost everything else except the seed. Farmers that use the GM seed will only be assured of a good crop if they spray with Roundup .
A number of countries have banned GM foods because they fear new health risks from new allergens and toxins found in these new foods.
In Europe there is a moratorium on the introduction of new GM crops. Thailand, Bolivia, Paraguay, China, Korea, Sri Lanka and many African countries have banned genetically modified (GM) crops and seed imports.
Yet other countries and even farmers in this country, are choosing to stay GM free because of the fear of not finding markets in countries that are opposed to GM crops and foods. (look at point number 1 for more examples of the health risks)
In South Africa there is no law requiring GM food to be labelled
South Africa has passed a new law but it does not go far enough.
This country’s legislation only requires food to be labelled as GM if it is ‘significantly different’ in terms of its chemical composition from normal food and if it contains allergens.
So GM maize and soybeans which are grown in South Africa will not be required to be labelled. And yet if tests for poisons and resistance to infection were done, the results would be substantially different from normal maize and soybeans.
GM crops do not necessarily use less insecticides
Experience across the world is showing that initially less pesticide is used on GM crops. However, as insects develop resistance to the toxin in the seeds, farmers have to use stronger pesticides than before. “The US Environmental Protection Agency predicts that most target insects could be resistant to BT (one of the most common toxins used in GM seeds) within three to five years,” quotes Groundwork, a South African environmental grouping against GM crops.
Escaping genes will mix with unmodified ones and create superweeds
There is a danger that if the herbicide is used year after year, that the weeds will develop a resistance to it. This will mean the farmer will have to use higher and higher doses of the herbicide to kill the superweeds.
Is hunger really the result of food shortage?
The argument that GMOs are necessary to feed the world and to increase agricultural production is based on the theory that hunger is as a result of too little food. Today we find that hungry people often live in countries that have food surpluses.
For example, South Africa is a food-exporting country and produces a surplus of food yet close to half of our population do not have adequate food.
Technological solutions like genetic engineering obfuscate the real issues. These issues are: who grows our food, how and where it is grown, how it is distributed and who has access to it. These are issues of food security. And central to the issue of food security is the ownership and access to land and resources to cultivate the land.
Althea is a Provincial Executive Member of Environmental Justice Networking Forum in the Western Cape