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8-Misc: South African Catholic Bishops' Conference and environmental NGOs critical on GMOs

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

TITLE:  A) Church calls for moratorium on genetically engineered food
        B) South African newspaper questions Aventis application there for
SOURCE: A) Panafrican News Agency
        B) Johannesburg Mail and Guardian via Africa News Service
           by Fiona Macleod
DATE:   A) November 8, 2000
        B) November 10, 2000

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A) Church calls for moratorium on genetically engineered food

The Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference Wednesday expressed its 
concern over the utilisation of Genetic Engineering or GE technologies in 
agriculture and food production. Tens of thousands of hectares in South 
Africa have been planted with GE crops. Modified maize and cotton are 
already commercially produced, while soybean, potato, tomato, apple and 
canola are in a trial phase.

The Rev. Wilfred Napier, archbishop of Durban, said GE is an imprecise 
technology and that the long-term health effects of consuming GE food have 
not been assessed. "Scientists are warning that new allergens, carcinogens 
and toxins may be introduced into foods," he said. "Moreover, the damage to 
the environment would be largely irreversible. Once released, genetically 
engineered organisms become part of our ecosystem."

He added that another major issue posed by the transgenic crop technologies 
is the cross-pollination of neighbouring non-GE crops due to pollen drift. 
This pollution could result in the eradication of biodiversity in areas 
bordering genetically modified crops. "Because we do not know whether there 
are any serious risks to the environment or human health, to produce and 
market genetically modified food is morally irresponsible. The 
precautionary principle should apply, as it is done in medical research," 
he said.

He called on the government to introduce a five-year freeze on genetic 
engineering, in support of the campaign launched by the South African 
Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering. "We agree that a five-year period 
is the minimum time needed to implement stringent safety tests on GE foods 
and to thoroughly research the health, safety and environmental impacts of 
GE crops. "During this time the import and export of GE foods and crops as 
well as the patenting of seeds for food and farm crops should be stopped," 
Napier said. He also urged the government to introduce compulsory labelling 
of GE food and sign the international Protocol on Biosafety which requires 
that countries exporting genetically modified organisms provide, in 
advance, detailed information to the importing country.


B) South African newspaper questions Aventis application there for StarLink

Johannesburg -- Aventis, which has been denied entry of its products into 
Europe by the EU, has applied to grow its genetically modified crop in 
South Africa. A company that has had to remove about 300 food products from 
United States supermarket shelves because they contain a genetically 
engineered maize that may cause human allergies now wants to grow the crop 
in South Africa. The French-based pharmaceuticals giant Aventis has applied 
to the Department of Agriculture for a permit to introduce the crop to 
South Africa. The maize is known as StarLink and it has been engineered to 
contain a gene that is suspected to cause allergies.

Aventis had permission to grow the crop in the US only for animal foods and 
industrial use. But the discovery of StarLink in the human food chain in 
the past weeks has caused mass hysteria among consumers. Snacks, cereals 
and restaurant foods produced by major brand names like Kraft Foods, 
Safeway and Western Family Foods have been recalled and two large food 
companies shut down their production lines. Many of the contaminated 
products are sold under different brand names, so it is difficult for 
consumers to know whether the food in their pantry is suspect.

At least one lawsuit has been filed against Kraft by a Chicago man who 
claims he suffered severe stomach cramps, diarrhoea, a headache and hives 
after eating tacos made with contaminated maize. StarLink contains a 
pesticide gene, Cry9C, that is resistant to heat and difficult to digest. 
It is this gene that is suspected to cause allergies. In its application to 
the Department of Agriculture in September, Aventis said it wants to grow 
maize with the Cry9C gene in South African "research trials". This involves 
testing the crop in local conditions before it can be grown commercially.

"Even if StarLink maize is grown commercially for animal consumption or 
industrial purposes only, can we stop the contamination of other 
foodstuffs?" asks Mariam Mayet, a Johannesburg lawyer who specialises in 
legislation on genetic engineering. "South Africa does not require 
genetically modified food to be segregated from that which has not been 
genetically modified. Labeling is also not required, which means the 
consumer will be unaware that he is consuming contaminated foods that have 
specifically not been approved for human consumption."

The StarLink scare in the US has raised questions about whether it is 
practically possible to segregate maize approved for human consumption from 
unapproved crops. It has not been established how the mix-up happened, but 
the problem starts with the crop's tendency to cross-pollinate while it is 
growing. Aventis created buffer zones of 22m around the StarLink maize 
fields, but now acknowledges the distance may not be enough. "This case 
clearly calls for South Africa to use the precautionary principle and ban 
the import of any genetically modified crop that may cause harm to human 
health or may enter the human food supply," says Mayet.

The European Commission, which is investigating the possibility that 
StarLink products may have been exported to Europe, last week said it had 
invoked the precautionary principle in dealing with StarLink. "Until we 
have a risk assessment, it's better to keep it out," said Wilfried 
Schneider, a representative of the European Union (EU) delegation to the 
US. The EU has enforced mandatory labeling of genetically engineered 
products for the past two years. In Japan, where StarLink is not approved 
even for animal feed, the consumers' union has reported detecting it in 
snack foods and animal feed sold locally. The country is now trying to 
source its maize supply elsewhere.

Department of Agriculture representative Magriet Engelbrecht says the 
Aventis application to bring StarLink to South Africa is being reviewed by 
an advisory committee. She says a final decision is unlikely before 
January. "What happens in other countries is going to be taken into account 
by the committee," Engelbrecht adds. "The experience in the US will play a 

Aventis has offered to buy back much of its maize crop grown in the US this 
year. The company says it has new data to demonstrate that fears about 
allergies are unfounded and has asked for temporary approval of the maize 
from the US authorities so that it can wend its way through the food supply 
without disrupting markets. There is no record of StarLink maize shipments 
having been imported into South Africa, though it may be present in 
foodstuffs imported from the US. "In other countries the StarLink 
contaminations have been picked up by consumer groups who insist on testing 
food for genetic modification," says Earthlife Africa's Glenda Lindsay. "In 
South Africa the NGOs don't have the resources to do this."

On December 1 last year the government finally pushed through the 
Genetically Modified Organisms Act of 1997 in an attempt to tighten 
regulation of the fast- growing field of genetic engineering. But Mayet 
says the Act still falls short of international safeguards. "Monitoring by 
civil society groups is extremely difficult. Information about foreseeable 
impacts and emergency measures in the case of an accident is not 
available," she says. "These are typical risk-management measures and 
should be the hallmarks of any bio- safety legislation. But they are not 
set out in the Act or its regulations."

The Aventis application to introduce StarLink crops is one of 111 permit 
applications received by the department between January and October 
relating to genetically modified organisms. The applications, most from the 
US, are for a variety of activities, including commercial releases, field 
trials, contained use and commodity imports for human and animal 
consumption. A total of 106 applications have been successful and five are 
under review. Before the Act was passed last year, 165 field trials were 
approved and two commercial releases were authorised, for the commercial 
planting of an insect- resistant maize crop and an insect- resistant type 
of cotton.

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