GM crops should not just be dismissed, nor just accepted

CAPE TOWN, Jun 16 (IPS) - After a protracted court battle of seven years, a small South African environmental organisation won a major legal victory against the multinational agri-chemical and seed giant Monsanto.

In a judgment in South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, this month, Judge Albie Sachs overturned a previous ruling by a High Court judge that Biowatch had to pay the costs of Monsanto and the government's department of agriculture.

This judgment followed after a number of court cases which started in 2002 when Biowatch launched court proceedings in the High Court demanding access to information about genetically modified (GM) crops produced by Monsanto. Biowatch is a non-profit organisation that campaigns for sustainable agricultural practices.

‘‘Although Biowatch won the case, it was ordered that we pay all costs of both the department of agriculture and Monsanto. It would have destroyed us if we had to pay the costs,’’ Rose Williams, Biowatch director, told IPS.

In his judgment Sachs said ‘‘public interest litigation could be jeopardised by the severe financial penalty that costs orders would impose on the organisations bringing these suits. The protection of environmental rights will not only depend on the diligence of public officials, but on the existence of a lively civil society willing to litigate in the public interest.’’

Sachs also said that this case is ‘‘a matter of great interest to the legal profession, the general public, and bodies concerned with public interest litigation’’.

An elated Williams responded by saying that, ‘‘the constitutional court victory proves that constitutional rights of South Africans are being protected. We believe that there are a number of health and environmental risks resulting from GM technology. The information about these risks has to be made public.’’

Responding to the Constitutional Court judgment, Monsanto said: 'Monsanto will naturally abide by the court decision.'

Mariam Mayet, director of the African Centre for Bio-safety, is inspired by the Constitutional Court judgment because it ‘‘proves that the rule of law still applies’’. The centre is a non-profit watchdog body that provides analysis on bio-safety, bio-piracy and genetic engineering in Africa.

‘‘In the bio-safety realm, the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is in dispute. There is no consensus that GM products are safe,’’ Mayet told IPS.

‘‘There are huge concerns that GM crops can contaminate agricultural biodiversity, lead to alterations in the DNA structure of agricultural products and eventually replace them. Monsanto has a monopoly. It controls the production and distribution of GM seeds globally.

‘‘And if you use Monsanto seeds, you also have to buy their other products like herbicides and pesticides. The organisation is extremely aggressive in lobbying provincial governments. It is a powerful corporation with a lot of political influence.

'In South Africa the department of science and technology is in favour of GM technology because the department receives huge amounts of money from foreign sources which is poured into GM research.

‘‘Farmers are profit-driven and embrace the technology because there are short term gains such as increased crop yields which save them labour costs. But they ignore the long term impacts on health and the environment,’’ Mayet added.

In South Africa 60 percent of the maize crops is GM. But earlier this year, three white maize hybrid crops failed in South Africa affecting an area of over 82 000 hectares in three provinces. Some 280 out of 1,000 farmers who used those specific seeds found that there was no kernel development.

In a statement, Monsanto claimed that extensive research proved that the problem was caused by under-fertilisation in the laboratory, unsuitable weather conditions and incorrect farming practices. The farmers who suffered losses were compensated by Monsanto.

The global debate about GMs remains fierce, with a number of European countries resisting GM. French president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007 banned the cultivation of GM crops and in the same year Monsanto was fined 15,000 euros by a French court for misleading the public about the environmental impact of their herbicide called Roundup.

In South Africa Monsanto was forced by the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa to change the wording of an advertisement stating that GM products have never caused any harm.

A number of researchers in this southern-most African country are arguing that GM could have benefits but that more research is needed. In her book, ‘‘Invaded: The Biological Invasion of South Africa’’ (published by Wits University Press), South African science writer Leonie Joubert writes that controlling alien and invasive grasses is a tricky business.

The frequent use of genetically modified grains is fuelling the spread of herbicide-resistant strains of crop grasses that makes control of the infestation even more problematic.

She told IPS: ‘‘GM, unfortunately, has become as polarising an issue as nuclear power, which I think is counterproductive. There is huge potential for GM to help us with feeding the world's hungry and adapting to climate change.

‘‘My problem is that it's not regulated well enough and its rollout is mostly driven by commercial interests, so you have whole lot of GM stuff getting out into the farming world and potentially into the natural environment when it may not necessarily have been tested sufficiently for safety, for example that the GM crops it won't hybridise with indigenous varieties, that they won't become weedy or invasive themselves.

‘‘GM has to be treated on a case by case basis, not given blanket dismissal or blanket acceptance,' Joubert concluded.

Melodie McGeoch, a core team member of the Centre for Invasion Biology, a research hub affiliated to the University of Stellenbosch near Cape Town, agreed: ‘‘It is important that we raise the profile of the potential environmental and ecological risks of biotechnology. Biotechnology can be safe but we have to ensure that it is sufficiently tested and researched.

‘‘Steps have been taken to avoid potential risks, but we are not quite there yet. Many genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are released before there are sufficient systems in place to assess their safety.’’

According to Biowatch’s Williams, herbicide and pesticide genes used in GM crops can also potentially have harmful effects on human beings and animals. Biowatch points out that South Africa has the dubious reputation of being the first country in the world to grow a GM staple crop - white maize - commercially.

Consumers want to know why this was approved, how eating this maize affects their health and why they are not able to exercise their right to choose non-GM foods through labelling of food products. Williams maintains that not enough information is made public.