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September 25, 2008

Trials of GM sorghum to begin in South Africa

South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has received the green light to undertake greenhouse trials on genetically modified sorghum.

An appeal board earlier this month set aside an earlier ruling by the regulating authority, the Executive Council of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), denying the CSIR a permit to undertake contained greenhouse trials on transformed sorghum.

The appeal board was appointed by the Minister of Agriculture and Land Affairs, Lulu Xingwana, in accordance with the country’s Genetically Modified Organisms Act.

The CSIR filed an appeal in March 2007, as provided for by the GMO Act.

The research council is one of the scientific contributors in an international research project to nutritionally enhance grain sorghum for use in Africa.

The Africa Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) project seeks to develop a more nutritious and easily digestible sorghum that contains increased levels of essential amino acids, increased levels of vitamins A and E, and more available iron and zinc. The project brings together seven African and two US organisations. The South African organisations include the CSIR, the Agricultural Research Council and the University of Pretoria.

The application was approved “in view of the potential scientific impact of the project in the long term,” says CSIR Biosciences executive director Gatsha Mazithulela. “This process proves that South Africa has robust regulation. We respect the fact that decision-makers have an obligation towards safety and that rigorous investigations are part of the process. Work on the project will now continue in our level three biosafety greenhouse,” says Mazithulela.

Sorghum is an African crop that is the staple food of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa. While it is one of the few crops that grow well in arid parts, it lacks the most essential nutrients and it has poor protein digestibility.

The CSIR reports that scientific evidence has shown that deficiencies in essential micronutrients – such as iron, zinc, vitamin A and others – can cause impaired immune systems, blindness, low birth weight, impaired neuropsychological development and growth stunting.

Malnutrition remains a leading direct and indirect cause of the rise in the many noncommunicable diseases, especially in Africa, hence, the ABS project, argues the CSIR.

This project is funded by a grant from the Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative, with a budget of $18,6-million over a period of five years. The Grand Challenges initiative was launched by the Gates Foundation in 2003, to help apply innovation in science and technology to the greatest health problems of the developing world. The ultimate goal of the initiative is to create health tools that are effective, inexpensive to produce, easy to distribute, and simple to use in developing countries.

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