The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) has published its first assessment of the impact on biodiversity by genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The key messages from this first assessment speak to the current knowledge of the impact of GM crops on biodiversity in South Africa; and the needs in terms of improving policy, research and development processes, and access to pertinent information.

South Africa ranks among the top ten countries globally for adoption of GM crops. About 2.74 million hectares are dedicated to GM crop production each year. GM cotton, soybean and maize are commercialised in South Africa. South Africa’s cotton area is 100% GM, soybean production is 95% GM, and maize production is greater than 85% GM. These crops either have insect resistance or tolerance to herbicides, or both.

South Africa’s framework for GMOs

South Africa has mechanisms in place to assess and regulate the development, production and use of GMOs, including national legislative instruments and a biosafety regulatory system. A science-based risk assessment is performed before GM crops are released commercially to ensure the crops pose no unacceptable risk. Monitoring confirms crop safety.

What does this mean for South Africa?

GM crops are a recognised component of the agricultural production system in line with South Africa’s development imperatives, which include food security. The agricultural sector continues to face challenges: emergence of aggressive pests, extreme weather conditions and insecticide and herbicide resistance. Biotech applications are needed to develop crops capable of withstanding the challenges.

While assessments show that GM crops pose no significant threat to biodiversity, there is no room for complacency. South Africa acknowledges inadequacies in data, information, and capacity.

South Africa employs a precautionary approach to the introduction of GM crops and endeavours to ensure responsible development, production, and use of GMOs. This is currently through constantly improving institutional structures and regulatory systems providing for detailed risk analyses before commercialisation. Resourcing remains a crucial need.

Key findings:

  • GM crops are not currently considered a driver of species extinction compared to other concerns such as habitat degradation, invasive species and climate change. None of the existing South African species Red List assessments (extinction risk), for animals and plants, identify GMOs as a threat.
  • The potential for hybridisation (cross-breeding) between commercial GM crops and their closely-related indigenous relatives or original traditional crops is explored pre-release and must be monitored. Maize does not have a wild relative in South Africa. Soybean gene transfer from GM crops to their indigenous wild relatives is unlikely. Further studies may be required to assess whether any gene transfer is taking place between GM cotton and its wild relative. Caution must be exercised with future commercial releases of other GM crops like potato, sugarcane, wheat, and sorghum, as South Africa has wild relatives of these crops and possible impacts of gene flow must be considered on a case-by-case basis.
  • There is a substantial lack of GM crop distribution and extent data, making it challenging to investigate their impact on biodiversity and design research studies.
  • Research is needed to understand the potential impact of GM crops on ecological functions such as pollination, soil nutrient cycling, pest control by natural enemies.
  • The limited capacity in classification (taxonomy) of species and inadequate understanding of the interactions between them hampers research on the impacts of GM crops. It is important to closely examine these interactions given that not all species can withstand the disturbances or impacts associated with agricultural practices.

Next steps

This assessment report is expected to initiate consultative processes to address data gaps, improve data access, conduct further research and monitoring, enhance capacity building, and establish cooperative networks of all institutions involved in GMO regulation and development. Cooperative planning of policies, strategies, and regulatory frameworks is necessary to mitigate potential adverse effects of GMOs in the environment.

Feedback and enquiries about the assessment should be addressed to:

Read more about the report and download it here

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