GENET archive


6-Genetech §§: Citizens call to revoke South AfricaŐs genetic engineering law

----------------------------- GENET-news -----------------------------

TITLE:  Stop the crop!
        Citizens call to revoke South AfricaŐs genetic engineering law
SOURCE: Biowatch, South Africa, press release
DATE:   February 28, 2000

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A meeting of prominent environmental and development lawyers and 
other experts was held in Cape Town last week to review South 
AfricaŐs legislation regulating genetically modified organisms. Under 
scrutiny was the Genetically Modified Organisms Act No 15 of 1997 
("GMO Act"), which came into effect on 1 December 1999 with the 
promulgation of its Regulations. The group, convened by the South 
African NGO Biowatch, was unanimous in its criticism of the Act and 
its newly passed Regulations, and commented that the legislation 
showed "a cynical disregard for contemporary international and 
national environmental principles, as well as for the development 
imperatives of South Africa".

Biowatch, a South African non-governmental organisation working on 
policy issues concerning biotechnology and the commercialisation of 
biodiversity, convened a workshop in Cape Town last week of a group 
of prominent environmental and development lawyers and specialists. 
The purpose of the workshop was to evaluate the Genetically Modified 
Organisms Act and its recently promulgated Regulations. A previous 
examination of the GMO Act commissioned by Biowatch highlighted a 
wide range of public concerns. The full report is available on 
request to Biowatch. These included the absence of public 
participation in the decision-making process, and in procedures for 
the approval of field trials and commercial releases; inadequate 
assessment and monitoring of environmental and social impacts; lack 
of transparency in the decision-making process; and the placing of 
liability on farmers and other users for environmental damage. The 
expectation was that the Regulations would address these concerns. 

Far from doing so, the Group concluded that the Regulations pay lip-
service only to the notion of a regulatory regime for meeting public 
biosafety concerns. The following aspects were raised in particular 
as key concerns and inadequacies: 
- The Regulations provide an exclusion that negates the very purpose 
  of the law by precluding almost any genetically modified seed,
  food or animal feed from permitting requirements. 
- A new problem has been created in that academic or research 
  facilities are exempt from permitting requirements.
- The permit-granting process provides a totally inadequate means for 
  the public to be involved in decision-making processes that
  directly affect their daily lives (eg food safety).

Genetic engineering is an imprecise technology with unpredictable 
consequences. Despite these uncertainties, the widespread 
experimentation and commercialisation of GM crops is proceeding in 
South Africa without comprehensive risk assessment procedures in 
place. The Regulations provide for risk assessment but do not 
stipulate in any way how this is to be effected, nor do they lay down 
baseline standards to indicate what is an unacceptable risk.

The Regulations provide no clarity on the procedures to be followed 
for environmental impact assessments for GMOs. This should include an 
evaluation of impacts on livelihood and food security, export trade 
opportunities, long and short term impacts on indigenous wildlife, 
implications for development options and the health impact of 
consuming food containing a cocktail of genes not previously eaten by 

The "precautionary principle" ("if you donŐt know donŐt do") as 
drafted in the Regulations is considered a dangerous interpretation 
of the principle, running in direct conflict to international and 
national definitions that are enshrined in the Biosafety Protocol and 
the National Environmental Management Act. 

Liability for any damages caused through the introduction of 
genetically modified crops is placed on the user of the product (eg 
farmers or consumers) rather than the proponent of the technology. 
For example, if a neighbourŐs organic field was contaminated with 
pollen from a genetically modified crop, this would destroy the 
farmerŐs market advantage in the expanding demand for organic 
products. Similarly, if genetic contamination occurred through a 
consumer disposing of food waste, the consumer would be held liable.

The Regulations fly in the face of South AfricaŐs responsibility to 
its neighbouring countries, all of which have emphasised the need for 
a strong biosafety regime to monitor and control the movement of 
genetically modified material between countries.

On the basis of these concerns, the group strongly recommended that 
legal action should be taken in the public interest to challenge the 
GMO Act and its Regulations. The group was confident that such action 
would meet with success.

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss
Tel: +27 22 492 3426
Fax: +27 22 492 3426

The report and web address of the law can also be received at GENET


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