U.S. Promotion of Ag Biotech in South Africa

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U.S. Promotion of Ag Biotech in South Africa

2005 Visit by State Dept Biotech Advisor

State Department Special Advisor for Biotechnology Madelyn Spirnak visited South Africa June 8-15, 2005 to meet with "government officials, researchers, private sector representatives and officials from the New Economic Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) to discuss agricultural biotechnology and biosafety issues."[1] She also "participated in a workshop on Biotechnology and Food Aid, where participants from African governments highlighted needs for assistance in capacity building." Additionally, Spirnak met with "journalists from South African Broadcasting Corporation, Farmers' Weekly and vernacular Landbou... and with a leading food safety and nutrition researcher, Dr. Lisa Korsten at the University of Pretoria."[1]

June 8 Meeting with South African Officials

A leaked U.S. State Department cable describes June 8 meetings with Spirnak as follows:[1]

"During a June 8 discussion with visiting State Department Senior Advisor for Agricultural Biotechnology Madelyn Spirnak, South African government (SAG) policymakers from several government departments provided feedback on recent COP/MOP meetings of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety held in Montreal. They noted that South Africa's position was out of sync with much of the rest of the "Africa group" and that in meetings of the Africa group, South Africa was the only country to provide any push-back to the dominating influence of the Chairperson, Ethiopia's Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher. They noted that while African country representatives espoused different viewpoints in bilateral conversations, none but the South Africans would take Dr. Tewolde on in group settings. And when a few African delegates strayed from Tewolde's script for Africa in individual statements made during the meetings, he disciplined them.
"Department of Science & Technology's Director for Biotechnology, Ben Durham, offered his personal view that South Africa needs to be even more assertive, given the country's position on and support for biotechnology. Newly- appointed Director for Biosafety of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), Wadzi Mandivenyi, reported that the South African delegation leader, DEAT Deputy Director General Fundisile Mketeni, told her that he wants the South African government to strategize better and identify ways to counter the influence of Dr. Tewolde. (Note: Mandivenyi a Zimbabwe-born scientist who worked with biotechnology stakeholder organization AfricaBio prior to assuming the new position at DEAT, is a welcome choice; as Ref A noted, some government sources were concerned that DEAT would select a Biosafety Director with anti-GMO leanings.
"According to the SAG officials, during the COP-MOP, South Africa offered to support and host a regional technical working group on liability and redress issues. South Africa also hopes to engage more proactively with individual countries in the region and in regional contexts such as NEPAD's southern region working group, to discuss biotechnology and biosafety issues in a more constructive and practical way, and thereby gain some allies for the SAG perspective."

During this meeting, Ben Durham also "advised that he (and presumably his Department) would be pushing for insertion of terminator genes in South Africa-engineered traits. He asserted that South Africa's economy should benefit economically from the fruits of its research."

Workshop on Biotechnology and Food Aid

Spirnak's visit coincided with the USAID/State Department sponsored workshop for African Policymakers on Biotechnology and Food Aid." Spirnak attended on June 10. A leaked U.S. State Department cable reports the following:[1]

"Spirnak gave brief closing remarks in which she summarized the apparent consensus on needs of African countries but stressed the importance of having in place a system which would allow food aid to be received from the United States should it be needed and desired."

Visit to Agricultural Research Council

On June 13, Spirnak visited South Africa's Agricultural Research Council, meeting with Dr. Kobie de Ronde. Here, she was briefed on the USAID sponsored Bt potato project. She was also briefed on other ARC projects, including: "a drought-resistant soybean, which is locally-produced with a gene licensed from Belgium," "a virus-resistant ornamental plant," "a virus resistant sweet potato," and "virus resistant tomatoes." A leaked U.S. State Department cable adds that "ARC is a UNESCO biotechnology training center for Africa. It also is working on gene mining projects on cow peas, sorghum and potatoes to develop locally genes that will help resource- poor farmers."[1]

Spirnak asked de Ronde about whether ARC would insert terminator genes into its GMOs. De Ronde replied that "the idea had come up in recent interagency meetings but she did not think that it would come to anything."

Meeting with Agriculture Department's GMO Officials

On June 13, 2005, Spirnak and Ag Counselor Reynolds visited Julian Jaftha, Senior Manager, Genetic Resources, and Michelle Vosges, GMO Registrar. Vosges spoke about her work, administering the GMO Act and the Plant Breeders Right Act. Vosges noted two job openings in her department, and the following day, U.S. State Department staff notified both Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred (DuPont) about it.[1] According to a leaked U.S. State Department cable, during the discussion, Jaftha outlined his top challenges of "interdepartmental coordination and the need for increased capacity of decision makers," and then noted "there is little that the USG [U.S. government] can do about these problems in a direct way, because there is now a high level of engagement from anti- GMO lobbyists and any hint of U.S. involvement fuels the outcry against the initiative."[1]

Meeting with New Economic Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD)

During the visit, Spirnak also met with Dr. John Mugabe, NEPAD's Science & Technology advisor, and Prof. Aggrey Ambali, his biotech coordinator.[1] They discussed "NEPAD's three major biotech initiatives."

1. The announcement of the fifteen members of a NEPAD-African Union biotech advisory panel.

"In response to Spirnak's request for the identities of the panel, he mentioned in particular, Egypt's Ismael Serag Eldin, Ethiopia's Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, Calestous Juma of Harvard, along with representatives from other African countries. Mugabe noted that panel members were chosen to represent a diverse scientific community, some of whom had no biotech experience. Their focus would be managing transboundary risks of LMO's, while maximizing benefits. Questioned about the inclusion of Tewolde and the possibility of his overpowering those with no biotech experience, Mugabe said that he doubted that Tewolde would be able to assert his will because of the high caliber of others on the panel. Mugabe said the panel would be assisted by an expert group which would provide reports to them on key issues. The panel is expected to have an eighteen-month life. It will begin with a meeting in August 2005 in South Africa and is to report its findings at the July 2006 AU Summit in Addis Ababa. In advance of that Summit, African agriculture, trade, and environment ministers would be invited to an inter-ministerial meeting in May to hear preliminary findings of the panel. He expected that panel meetings in advance of the Summit would take place primarily in South Africa. Asked if the panel would endorse the AU Model Biosafety law, Mugabe responded that there would be no model law for Africa. It was up to each country to make its own legislative decisions, but the advisory panel would try to provide un-biased, scientific information to help countries' policy-making."

2. The Networking of four African Biosciences Hubs,"taking advantage of existing regional biotech leaders: Senegal, Egypt, South Africa and Kenya."[1]

3. Building public awareness. This "will be launched with the assistance of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which already has conducted seminars in South Africa and Zimbabwe."

Meeting with Monsanto and Cargill

On June 14, 2005, Spirnak and Ag Counselor Reynolds meet with "American seed and grain trading companies present in the Johannesburg area," including Monsanto and Cargill. According to a leaked State Department cable:[1]

"Monsanto explained that more than 90 percent of the cotton harvested in South Africa is transgenic, about 50 percent of the soybeans are transgenic, and about 20 percent of the corn is transgenic. Although new approvals are slow in coming, biotech seed sales in South Africa have been good, and these percentages are expected to continue to rise over time. Monsanto reported that they applied for a stacked event in late 2001 (Bollgard with round-up ready cotton) and that they believe all of the members of the GMO Executive Council except DEAT have approved it for commercial use. Monsanto also applied for a stacked event in corn (810 with NK603) about six months ago, and no decision has been made by the GMO Executive Council.
"Cargill's Managing Director for South Africa explained that their primary goal is to meet the demands of all customers with the appropriate products. They are busy sourcing many non-GMO truckloads of corn for Zimbabwe. This is not difficult because many cooperatives in northern South Africa are oriented to exports to Zimbabwe and only carry non-GMO maize in their silos. However, he noted that it has become very difficult to guarantee non-GMO corn from South Africa in the case of large ocean vessels. The risk of rejection at discharge is getting higher each year. In his opinion, once the transgenic content in South African corn reaches thirty to forty percent, perhaps as early as next season, then the quote Game is Over unquote. There will no longer be a capability to segregate and certify that large shipments of South African corn have no transgenic content."

USAID Sponsored Bt Potato Project

USAID sponsored a project in cooperation with Michigan State University to commercialize a genetically engineered Bt Potato in South Africa.[2][1] "The potato contains a Syngenta-developed gene in a South African cultivar engineered to resist the tuber moth."[1] Field trials began in 2002, with a projected commercialization set for 2007. As of June 2005, five of the six planting trials, set in six different ecological areas of South Africa, were completed. U.S. state department cable notes that, "Storage trials so far show 100 percent control of the moth and no damage to non-transgenic lines."[1] (The Bt trait is intended to control for pest damage during potato storage.)

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  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 South Africa, Biosafety Update And State Senior Biotech Advisor Visit, U.S. State Department cable via Wikileaks, June 20, 2005, Accessed September 4, 2011.
  2. South Africa: Biosafety Update, U.S. State Department cable via Wikileaks, March 30, 2005, Accessed September 4, 2011.

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