Cape Town — The Department of Science and Technology Director General, Dr Phil Mjwara, says biotechnology or genetically modified (GM) crops have had a positive economic impact on South Africa.
He said this when he briefed journalists upon releasing the second survey on the Public Perceptions of Biotechnology in South Africa on Tuesday. The survey was conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).
"It is estimated that the economic gains from biotech crops for South Africa for the period 1998 to 2013 was US$1.6 billion and US$313 million for 2013 alone.
"In 2014, South Africa was growing more than 2.7 million hectares of GM crops. About 86% and 90% of maize and soya produced, respectively, are GM. Cotton is 100% genetically modified," he said.
More than half of SA familiar with biotechnology
Dr Michael Gastrow, from the Human Sciences Research Council, said one of his observations from the survey, which was conducted amongst 2 900 adults in 500 areas across the country, was that there was a better understanding of how much people know about biotechnology from the younger generation, and that attitudes tend to get more positive with the young ones.
Dr Gastrow also said that the privileged - from the level of education, to those with a better living standard - have a better understanding or knowledge about biotechnology.
"When you look at attitudes towards biotechnology in terms of health, safety, environment and economic contribution... there are significant proportions that are in favour of a particular attitude, a significant proportion [that are] against, and a significant third... that just doesn't know enough about biotechnology," he said.
He said most South Africans are aware they are consuming genetically modified food.
The survey revealed that 48% were aware that they were eating genetically modified organisms, while 49% believed it was safe to do so.
The first survey conducted in 2004 revealed that public familiarity with the term 'biotechnology', stood at only 21%, while public awareness of GM consumption was at 13%. The latest survey commissioned by the department last year showed that the figures have tripled, 53% and 48% respectively.
Dr Gastrow said there had also been a major increase in attitudes that favour the purchasing of GM foods.
The proportion of the public that would purchase GM foods on basis of health considerations increased from 59% to 77%, while that of cost considerations increased from 51% to 73%, and environmental considerations from 50% to 68%.
GM forms of maize, soybean and cotton have been approved for commercial production in South Africa and these crops have become established in some parts of the country.
Public awareness to enhance biotechnology understanding
Dr Mjwara said, meanwhile, that while genetically modified crops have been approved and adopted in South Africa and worldwide by science-based regulatory systems and farmers, they still remain a source of apparent public controversy. While it is entirely appropriate for the public to have varying opinions on the technologies and their applications, where misinformation or deliberate misinformation is offered, it needs to be countered with scientific evidence, he said.
"This controversy contributes to extreme precautionary approaches by some countries, resulting in increased regulatory burdens and delays, with associated development costs, timelines and risks that have limited the number of countries adopting the technology - including countries in Africa.
"[This has] limited the application of the technology to relatively few crops, with limited traits, and only a handful of developers - usually multinational companies - have the capability and the resources to commercialise GM crops," Dr Mjwara said.
To counter this perception, the Department of Science and Technology established the Public Understanding of Biotechnology (PUB) Programme, which sought to promote awareness and understanding of biotechnology to the broader public.
The PUB Programme was broadly successful in a number of interventions, including developing media roundtables; critical thinker sessions; exhibitions; training of media on science and technology issues, and the development of biotechnology in school curricula. However, it had very limited ability to respond to inaccurate, misleading or vague media (newspaper, television and radio) reports.