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FOOD INSECURITY

Costs of inappropriately regulating all seed innovations as GMOs are too high for South Africa

Costs of inappropriately regulating all seed innovations as GMOs are too high for South Africa
Seeds are germinated at Kew Millennium Seed Bank in Wakehurst, Britain 16 March 2023. South African policy is failing to keep up with technological advances such as gene-editing, which could have severe repercussions for food availability in South Africa. (Picture: Neil Hall / EPA-EFE)

Automatically regulating all gene-editing products as GMOs as opposed to the product-by-product approach adopted by most other countries is going to mean South African agriculture, the economy and consumers will bear a very high opportunity cost.

Technological innovation has always driven humankind forward. While all innovation should be subject to relevant and best-practice regulatory scrutiny, we need to be aware of the costs associated when regulation doesn’t keep pace with advances in either technological change or best practice for oversight itself.

And in South Africa this is especially significant given the challenges we face as a nation – because in many instances evolving technologies are offering solutions to the most pressing of these, meaning there is a significant opportunity cost to adopting them late or passing on them because of being out of step with best practice or unnecessary red tape.

In the South African food system, access to the latest plant-breeding innovations is key for quality seed so farmers can produce food despite the challenges they face, which are not insignificant.

An alarming instance of inappropriate regulation stems from a 2021 decision by the Executive Council, a body appointed in terms of the Genetically Modified Organisms Act (of 2007) to regulate products derived from new breeding technologies (NBTs) under the Act as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

Vital technological innovation

NBTs include gene editing, which is a vital technological innovation for breeding new varieties offering significant benefits, including climate change resilience, resistance to pests and improved crop quantity and quality.

With gene editing, a wide range of crops can become available to farmers. Some of these crop products will be classified as GMOs due to the insertion of foreign DNA. However, most of the new crops, which have no foreign-added DNA, will conform to crops that could have evolved in nature completely by themselves and therefore are not GMOs in any scientific sense.

Automatically regulating all gene-editing products as GMOs as opposed to the standards adopted by most other countries around the world – which is a product-by-product regulatory approach – is going to mean South African agriculture, the economy and consumers will bear a very high opportunity cost.

In fact, the costs are so high that the South African National Seed Organisation (Sansor) has recently written to the minister of agriculture, land reform and rural development to ask for immediate action to correct the regulations.

If all NBTs, even the non-GMO type, continue to be regulated under the GMO Act, the first of these costs is direct and will be carried by any business looking to bring a product into South Africa (or developing one here) which utilises gene editing.

Previously, companies could leverage the compliance work done in other countries by a product’s developers, at their cost. But as policy around the globe largely does not regulate all NBTs as GMOS, but on a case-by-case basis, the costs of the studies and other assessment work will now fall on South African firms.

High costs

And the cost is prohibitively high. A study done in 2022 by CropLife International revealed that the regulatory science of a GMO product is roughly around $42.3-million. There are very few, if any, firms locally that can afford to pay this for a single product.

In addition to this there are also a variety of other costs. The loss of market access for agricultural and seed exports is one. A lack of a harmonised regulatory and policy approach to NBTs with our trading partners will mean that the exact same NBT-bred crop, or agricultural product grown from that seed, will be recognised by our core trading partners as being distinct from GMOs – while we will have regulated it as a GMO.

The result is that when we export our products to those markets, they will be recognised under our own classification as being GMOs. This will attract a new burden of regulatory compliance as well as consumer scepticism.

All the while the same product in the export country can be sold by others without this regulation because when reviewed on a case-by-case basis, the product is correctly identified as not being a GMO.

This will result in the South African sector falling behind its international market competitors because of incorrect and unscientific regulation. Similarly, local innovation in plant breeding would also be stifled because of the cost of regulation and its impact on the ability to export.

When regulation is also unnecessarily and inappropriately burdensome it creates perverse incentives, especially for the fly-by-night importation (which would essentially be unregulated) of gene-edited products as the prohibitive costs will make some actors more likely to simply not comply at all.

This would be possible because there is no way to detect products produced by non-GMO gene-editing from those which could be achieved through conventional selective or cross breeding over plant life generations. This means the increased possibility of crops being introduced with no transparency or appropriate oversight, which is concerning because appropriate regulation is vital.

The potential to access new climate-change and pest-resilient crops would also be lost. Crucially, the inability to take advantage of both the opportunities provided by utilising NBT-bred crops and the adaptations they offer for climate and pest pressures will be felt most by those who cannot afford the cost of compliance or compliant seed.

Especially new and emerging farmers are exposed to this danger. In effect, barring them from climate and yield innovations could have a disastrous impact on new entrants. It also imperils the sustainable transformation of agriculture in the country.

When yield and innovation are stifled by the consequences of inappropriate regulation, it also has an impact on our ability to buy the foods we want and to access new foodstuffs which will be introduced in other markets. Consumer choice and the availability of food (because increasing crop yields relies heavily on breeding innovations) would diminish, and this means a substantially increased risk to food security.

There is abundant potential being offered by technological innovation across the world. All societies must apply appropriate scepticism when adopting these, but be just as cautious of following the wrong approach.

If we fail to keep pace with global advancement because of red tape, not only will our development suffer, but the opportunities provided to tackle some of our most pressing challenges, like responding to climate change and keeping pace with population growth, will be missed. South Africa simply cannot afford for that to happen. DM

Lukeshni Chetty is the General Manager of the South African National Seed Organisation (Sansor).

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • James Lloyd says:

    This is an important debate which is flying under the radar. If the regulations stay as they are it will become progressively harder to import food into the country. This is because the use of this technology is being taken up incredible quickly by breeding companies as it speeds up the process. I estimate that most commercial crops grown around the world will have undergone some form of genome editing in the next decade. Given that it is impossible to distinguish them from crops bred traditionally by crossing and selection, it makes no sense to have them regulated differently.

  • Lo-Ammi Truter says:

    This speaks to our food security, a concept that has been under discussion world-wide for decades, but only recently discovered by our President and his minister of agriculture who use it as a catch phrase without any understanding of the crucial role the legislator has in its application. We need to vote intellect and strategic thinking into our Parliament and rid ourselves of the deployment of ignorant cadres once and for all. Please.

  • William Dryden says:

    The problem here is like my wife and many others believe that GMO foods are harmful and insist on not purchasing them. I try to convince my wife that a lot of GMO foods like say rice and corn, have been modified to grow in water scarce areas and have adapted to grow in such arid areas. But to no avail she will not buy, so yes I agree if the modification does not contain foreign DNA then it shouldn’t be classed as GMO.

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