Seed industry rejects government’s classification of NBT as GMO

The National Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) has in October last year, published a notice laying the foundation on the regulation approach for New Breeding Technologies (NBT).

Now, according to a report by Scuttelaar & Partners, the rapid development of new biotechnologies in plant breeding industry has provided governments with legislative headaches. At the core of this armistice, is whether NBT should be included or treated as part of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO).

DALRRD was of the view that NBT provided new methods for “genetic engineering and enable the production of a range of innovative products”.

The seeds industry, represented by the South African National Seed Organisation (SANSOR), with shoulder-to-shoulder support from the Agricultural Business Chamber (AgBIZ) and Crop Life SA, lodged an appeal against the regulatory approach.

“South Africa’s decision to regulate all products derived from NBTs as GMOs will have widespread implications not only in South Africa and on South African innovators, but also with regards to international trade of commodities that may contain products derived from NBTs,” the seed industry said in a statement.

The trio believed that asymmetric regulation could potentially cause food insecurity and ‘create significant barriers between South Africa and its trading partners.’

According to the EU, South Africa was one of the 11 developing countries in the world planting transgenic crops (estimated at 2.3 million ha), with a large scale of GM cultivation in maize, soyabean and cotton. 

Yet, these transgenic crops were privately owned, almost developed exclusively by the private sector with government and smallholder breeders playing a minimal role in the production of these crops.

On the appeal, the local seed industry’s rejection of DALRRD’s public notice, stemmed from the belief that the regulator arrived at a wrong interpretation of the GMO definition.

SANSOR and its partners, argued that the interpretation went against the widely accepted principle that NBTs should not be regulated differently if they are identical to, or indistinguishable from products that could have been obtained naturally or through conventional breeding methods.

SA GMO Act defined GMO as an “organism the genes or genetic material of which has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally through mating or natural recombination or both”.

It therefore considered NBTs to be under risk assessment framework that exists for GMOs.

The European Union (EU), as per the European Directive 2001/18/EC, also defined GMO along the lines of SA GMO Act as “an organism, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.”

The jury was still out if the definition mirrored the spirit and values of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity which South Africa was a signatory too.

However, DALRRD’s Applications Forms for NBTs (general release form, trail release form, commodity clearance form, contained use form and registration facility form), seemed to have considered the provisions of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which directs signatories to “ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health”.

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