Cablegate: South Africa: Biosafety Update

Published: Fri 10 Dec 2004 01:27 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
REFS: A) STATE 259661; B) PRETORIA 5285; C) PRETORIA 5223;
D) PRETORIA 1806; E) 03 PRETORIA 6111; F) 03 PRETORIA 1441
1. (SBU) Summary: In October 2004, the National Department
of Agriculture (NDA) published amendments to the current
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Act, to bring it in
line with the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety; public
comments were requested by November 19, but it is unclear
how quickly the NDA will follow up. Environmental laws put
into effect in 2004 have the potential to make the GMO
approval process slower and more cumbersome. Government
officials are particularly concerned with potential
requirements for environmental impact assessments, along
with the prospective role of the Minister of Environmental
Affairs and Tourism and the South Africa National
Biodiversity Institute. On the good news front, the
Department of Science & Technology continues to support
biotech programs, local courts continue to uphold protection
of business confidential information in GMO applications and
a regional group is pursuing biotech projects as well, with
South Africa to host its center of excellence. End summary.
Amendments to GMO Act
2.(SBU) Further to post's April biotech policy update (Ref
D), the SAG's National Department of Agriculture (NDA)
decided to amend its Genetically Modified Organisms Act
(introduced in 1997, promulgated in 1999) directly, rather
than make changes to the implementing regulations. In
October 2004, the NDA published its draft amendments to
bring the Act in line with the Cartagena Protocol for
Biosafety (CPB). Public comments were requested by November
19, 2004 and it is not clear how and when the NDA will
respond to the comments. Parliament eventually will have to
approve the amended law. The amendments appear overall to
be reasonable, except for a few concerns noted below (paras
3. (SBU) Under the current GMO Act, the Executive Council
responsible for making regulatory decisions consists of
eight members: one representative from six government
departments (Agriculture, Science & Technology, Health,
Environmental Affairs & Tourism, Trade & Industry, and
Labor), the chair of the Advisory Committee that provides
scientific and technical analysis of risk assessment data,
and the GMO Registrar, an official from NDA responsible for
administering the Act. The draft amendments expand the
Council to 10 members, adding representatives from the
Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, and the Department
of Arts and Culture. The contribution to be made by the
latter is not evident to us, and officials from Department
of Science & Technology told EmbOffs on December 3 that they
shared this concern.
4. (U) The amendments also make conflicting references to
the need for an "environmental assessment" and an
"environmental impact assessment," and the assessment is not
clearly defined. DST officials told EmbOffs they raised
this concern and requested clarification from NDA. An APHIS
expert who spent 10 weeks in Pretoria as Embassy Science
Fellow also noted that added requirements to notify the
CPB's Biosafety Clearinghouse in the event of an accident
appear to go beyond the provisions of the CPB.
Various stakeholders respond
5. (U) The GMO amendments mention opportunities for public
comment, but this did not appear to satisfy anti-GMO
activists. Anti-GMO lobby group BioWatch's 19-page
submission of highly negative comments can be found online
at _Final.doc.
BioWatch calls the SAG's approach "narrow, non-consultative"
and the proposed amendments "poorly drafted and wholly
inadequate." The group demands that the SAG apply a
precautionary approach and urges a new process that allows
much greater public participation in determining GMO policy
and redrafting the GMO Act. It also urges public
Parliamentary hearings and debates on GMO policy and
6. (U) Local press reported comments on the amendments from
the anti-GMO Centre for Biosafety director, Mariam Mayet:
"They do not fully implement the Biosafety Protocol,
perpetuate the lack of transparency (in the act), will
expedite the trade in GMOs, make it easier for the
biotechnology industry to conduct field trials and appear to
open up a hitherto closed door to human gene therapy."
Mayet also expressed concerns about proposed amendments that
allow the GMO registrar to "fast-track" permits without the
approval of the national Executive Council. The NDA's
manager for genetic resource management, Julian Jaftha,
clarified to the media that fast-track approvals only
applied to the extension of previously-granted approvals.
7. (SBU) Pro-biotech AfricaBio shared its comments with
EmbOffs. AfricaBio noted broadly that the CPB pertains only
to Living Modified Organisms, and the amendments do not
always adhere to the provisions, wording and scope of the
Protocol. AfricaBio also does not support the specific
addition of two persons with knowledge of ecological matters
(and a "non-prejudiced position" on GMOs) to the Advisory
Committee that reviews applications and provides technical
advice to the Executive Council members. It notes that
specific expertise has not been singled out for other
members in the Advisory Committee and suggests alternative
language that allows greater flexibility in determining
composition of the Committee. AfricaBio also questioned the
addition of Department of Arts and Culture to the Executive
Environmental official's perspective on biosafety policy
--------------------------------------------- -----------
8. (SBU) A seasoned official from Department of
Environmental Affairs and Tourism told EST Officer on
December 3 that the next six months will be critical for
SA's policies on biosafety, as the amended GMO Act and
environmental regulations are finalized and new personnel
appointments are made. DEAT recently advertised for a new
Director of Biosafety to improve its extremely limited
capacity. The DEAT official said that this appointment
could "go either way" and may be awarded to an individual
with strong anti-GMO leanings. Many senior DEAT officials
are susceptible to influence by what the official termed
"the greens." When EST Officer noted the recent statements
of DEAT Director General Chippy Olver in support of the
SAG's GMO policies (Ref C), the DEAT official termed these
comments as "atypical" for Olver.
9. (SBU) Recently-enacted environmental legislation may have
negative impacts on the GMO approval process. The National
Biodiversity Act, which was signed into law in June 2004 and
effective as of September 1, gives significant powers to the
Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism on biosafety
issues. The law states, "If the Minister has reason to
believe that the release of a genetically modified organism
into the environment under a permit applied for in terms of
the Genetically Modified Organisms Act, 1997, may pose a
threat to any indigenous species or the environment, no
permit for such release may be issued in terms of that Act
unless an environmental assessment has been conducted..."
under provisions of other legislation on Environmental
Impact Assessments (EIA, see para 10 below). The Act does
not define "environmental assessment." In giving special
powers to the Minister, the provision does not appear to be
consistent with the GMO Act (which gives similar powers to
an Executive Council on which DEAT is represented) and could
create grounds for appeal of all GMO regulatory decisions,
effectively slowing down-or grinding to a complete halt--the
GMO approval process.
10. (SBU) Amendments to the National Environmental
Management Act intended to strengthen environmental
compliance and enforcement have led to the revamping of the
Environmental Impact Assessment process. The DEAT official
told EST Officer that under new EIA rules being developed,
GMO approvals were going to be required to have full-fledged
environmental impact assessments. The official intervened
personally to convince DEAT colleagues to change from the
onerous requirement for an EIA to requiring an "initial
assessment" (Note: the IA is more equivalent to the
environmental assessment in the U.S.) for GMO approvals.
11. (SBU) Officials at DEAT as well as DST told EmbOffs
they had concerns about the role and capacity of the
recently-established South African National Biodiversity
Institute (Ref B) to provide timely, science-based risk
analysis of biodiversity impacts from GMO products. The new
Biodiversity Act directs SANBI to "monitor and report
regularly to the Minister on the impacts of any genetically
modified organism that has been released into the
environment, including the impact on non-target organisms
and ecological processes, indigenous biological resources
and the biological diversity of species used for
agriculture." However, the SAG is not providing resources
to enable SANBI to develop the capacity to carry out this
Positive developments on biosafety, biotech policy
--------------------------------------------- -----
12. (U) The Department of Science & Technology continues to
provide strong program support for biotechnology. In August
2004, Minister of Science & Technology Mosibudi Mangena
reiterated his Department's commitment to a platform for
biotechnology research, development and commercialization
(Note: this was incorrectly reported in the media as a "new"
initiative; it was first time the new Minister has discussed
his department's biotech programs, which have been in place
since early 2003, see Refs E, F. End note).
13. (SBU) PlantBio, South Africa's fourth biotechnology
innovation center--and the first with a national scope and
an exclusive focus on plant biotechnology--was officially
launched in October 2004. DST sources tells us that
PlantBio has already received many strong project proposals,
but current funding levels are limited to R 9 million (USD
1.6 million at USD = R5.7). Three biotech regional
innovation centers in Gauteng, Western Cape and KwaZulu
Natal provinces are actively engaged in funding research and
related projects to bring biotech to the market, working in
close cooperation with government-supported biotech
incubators that support the efforts of fledgling biotech
14. (SBU) In mid-November, New Partnership for African
Development (NEPAD) S representatives held a regional
workshop of representatives of countries from southern
Africa (including from South Africa's DST) to discuss
potential projects. Professor Aggrey Ambali, a new NEPAD
BioSciences advisor who hails from Malawi and will work with
NEPAD Science & Technology Adviser John Mugabe, discussed
biotech programs in the Southern African region with country
representatives. DST sources told EST Officer that the
group decided that South Africa's Council on Scientific and
Industrial Research (CSIR) will host a center of excellence
in the NEPAD southern sub-region, to screen project
proposals and make research awards. The Canadian
International Development Agency is providing financial
support for establishing a network of excellence in
biotechnology and genomics, including these regional centers
of excellence. Comment: The development of sub-regional
program areas within NEPAD in the biosciences provide a
positive and functional alternative to the Southern African
Development Community, which has taken a strong
precautionary approach to biotech and GMOs, influenced more
by politics than science. End comment.
15. (SBU) South African courts have consistently, if slowly,
ruled in favor of the NDA and the South African government
in cases brought by BioWatch and other anti-GMO groups
demanding access to business proprietary information used in
GMO approval assessments and appealing government GMO permit
16. (SBU) Comment: Many of the laws and regulations
affecting biosafety and GMO risk management are in flux.
Our DEAT colleague rightly noted that SAG decisions in
upcoming months will significantly shape South Africa's
biosafety policy. FRAZER
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