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November 04, 2009

South African regulatory rejection of GM potato proves controversial

by Munyaradzi Makoni

South Africa's Agricultural Research Council has appealed against the government's decision to reject a locally developed genetically modified (GM) potato it was hoping to release to farmers. The decision has split the industry.

The Pretoria government's Executive Council for Genetically Modified Organisms dismissed the application for a permit to release the potato. Both safety and economic grounds were given for the rejection.

The potato, SpuntaG2, contains a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which acts like a built-in pesticide against the tuber moth (Phthorimaea operculella). The moth is reported to cause rand 40 million (US$ 5 million) of losses to the South African potato industry each year.

Developers had hoped the potato would allow farmers to use fewer pesticides, reducing costs and helping the environment.

At a meeting held in Cape Town to discuss the ban, Gurling Bothma, a scientist at the ARC-Roodeplaat Vegetable and Ornamental Plant Institute, described the government's decision as frustrating. "I think they did not understand our results," Mr Bothma told the meeting.

The Department of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries has expressed concerns about the damage the modified potatoes would do to trade, as South Africa does not have the means to segregate GM crops from non-GM. Several trade partners want guarantees agricultural products are non-GM.

Another worry is that farmers would still need to spray SpuntaG2 to counter other pests. Moreover, the industry's biggest problems relate to a lack of water and fertiliser, not pests, according to government.

Julian Jafta, director of genetic resources at the department, says inadequate toxicity information is another factor in the rejection of SpuntaG2. Little information is available on the effects of inserting the new gene on potato allergen content .

Also opposing the introduction of the modified vegetable is Potatoes South Africa, an organisation representing commercial and smallholder potato farmers.

Ben Pieterse, research and development manager of Potatoes SA, said: "We support biotechnology and the future benefits it can bring. We will, however, not support any products that can cause health risks."

In addition, Mr Pieterse fears consumer resistance to GM potatoes would reduce consumption - South Africans currently eat 35 kilograms of potatoes per person annually. Exports would also suffer, he says.

But he argued for the continuation of GM potato research "in case a time will come in future when this technology is needed - then we should be ready," he said.

But ARC-Roodeplaat scientiest Mr Bothma said that there was a strong possibility that all GM potato research in South Africa would now cease due to lack of funding.

South Africa is the only country in Africa to have commercially released GM food crops - maize and soya - and the only country in the world to have allowed the genetic modification of the staple food, maize, according to the African Centre for Biosafety, which campaigned against the potato.

The appeal decision is expected within three months.


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