South Africa: Greens May Sue State Over Genetic Maize

Cape Town — Biowatch Trust says appeal board's reasons for allowing genetically modified maize confirm fears of inadequate controls

Delays by the agriculture department's appeal board in giving reasons why it had allowed genetically modified maize to be distributed in SA could lead to further legal action, a biotechnology watchdog body warned yesterday.

Biowatch Trust, a lobby group concerned with conserv ing biological diversity, said written reasons furnished by board chairman Peter Lazarus "confirmed Biowatch's long-standing fears about inadequate controls over these crops".

This was in response to the board's appeal against decisions to allow Swiss biotechnology company Syngenta Seed Company to import, grow and sell modified maize for human and animal consumption.

Biowatch said it was unhappy with the reasons, which it felt could be legally contested and reviewed, and was exploring legal options.

The reasons were furnished last week to beat a deadline that allows the department three months to administratively justify its decision to grant the necessary permits to Syngenta to proceed with distributing modified maize seed in SA.

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss, a researcher at Biowatch, said the fact that the department acknowledged it had a lack of capacity to monitor modified foods and that it placed certain conditions on the permits issued to Syngenta showed government was taking issues seriously.

"In spite of this, it still put commercial interests of big multinational companies first," said Pschorn-Strauss.

The board refused to set aside decisions to grant permits to Syngenta, though it found required advertisements "did not comply with mandatory legal requirements, (and) were published in a way that was misleading and contained information that was both inaccurate and misleading".

The board decided the growing and distribution of modified maize throughout the country was not an activity that significantly affected the environment, and it was unnecessary to assess the environmental and socioeconomic effects (as required by the National Environmental Management Act.

"This is extremely disturbing, given the lack of scientific certainty over the effects of genetic modification. The board didn't consider results of previous field trials of this maize and had no data about effects on South African flora or fauna, or about socioeconomic impacts on people," said Pschorn-Strauss.

"It is cold comfort that, as a result of the appeal, Syngenta's permit conditions will now be altered to require more comprehensive monitoring, but this is a clear case of shutting the stable door.

"Why were no such tests done in the first place? To add insult to injury, the appeal process was so protracted the first crop of maize had already been harvested by the time the board reached its decision.

"The board therefore decided that, even though the decision to grant a field trial permit was flawed, there was no longer any point in setting it aside. This is a clear case of justice delayed is justice denied' in action," said Pschorn-Strauss.

Biowatch has written to the agriculture minister to institute a public process to develop "appropriate policies and procedures" on genetically modified organisms.

It said procedures "violated" constitutional and democratic rights of South Africans to take part in decisions on importing , growing and consum ing such organisms .

"Many people would be shocked to learn it was the department's practice to grant permits for the importation, growing and sale of GM crops without having conducted environmental impact assessments (EIAs).

"Instead of requiring environmental impact assessments, the department relied on desk-based 'risk assessments' provided by the very multinational companies that manufactured and sold the genetically modified seed and associated chemicals. These risk assessments were usually kept under wraps by the department, an act found to be 'inexplicable and entirely unjustified' by the board, Biowatch told the minister.

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