19 October 2002

South Africa defies European pressure to favour GM foods

By Basildon Peta, Southern Africa Correspondent

The emotional regional debate on the safety of genetically modified food aid has highlighted South Africa's stance on biotechnology, exposing a lonely but unwavering policy.

But while the distribution of GM food is controversial across the region, South Africa has an agenda of strong support for agricultural biotechnology that food experts say is here to stay.

South Africa is the only country in the 14-nation Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) to license the production of transgenic crops, modified to include genetic components from other organisms that do the job of pesticides, protecting plants from predation.

This year South Africa pioneered the planting of a modified variety of white maize, the region's staple food source. South Africa's food experts believe investment in new technology is the only way to lift Africa from poverty.

Kainyua M'bijjewe, a Kenyan food scientist based in Johannesburg, said: "We can only transform Africa through agriculture. And we can only transform African agriculture through modern technology including biotechnology." It was unfortunate, he added, that South Africa was the only country in the region to have adopted GM technology.

Mr M'bijjewe said European non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which had persuaded other African governments to reject GM foods, should realise that they were aiding starvation in Africa. He accused them of sponsoring a "disinformation campaign" against American-produced GM foods to settle trade scores between European and US companies at the expense of dying people in southern Africa. He said European NGOs could afford to play games with African lives because there were no food shortages in Europe.

Gillian Kerchoff, of the anti-GM group Safeage, accused the South African government of being in thrall to Western biotechnology companies keen to establish a product base in Africa. Ms Kerchoff said: "South Africa has always been in the position of a launch pad for the rest of Africa. That has just been made a lot more critical because of the crisis over food aid."