11 & 12 March 2003

Submission by Biowatch South Africa

Honourable Chair, Members of Parliament,

Thank you for this opportunity to talk to you.

I would like to start with a quote, not because I particularly admire this person, but because for once he made sense. President George Bush, the president of the US said the following on July 27th, 2001:

"It’s important for our nation to build – to grow foodstuffs, to feed our people. Can you imagine a country that was unable to grow enough food to feed the people? It would be a nation subject to international pressure. It would be a nation at risk. And so when we’re talking about American agriculture, we’re really talking about a national security issue"

(U.S. President George W. Bush in remarks to the Future Farmers of America. July 27, 2001 – Washington, DC)

This statement also illustrates clearly the importance the US puts on their right to grow their own food. If the US, the biggest importer of agricultural produce in the world, puts so much emphasis on the principle of self determination when it comes to food and agriculture, then why do so many developing countries concede that right in the interests of trade and political relations?

Food security is a national responsibility but also an international one, as a country can have the best national policies on food security and development, but international trade regimes will prevent that country from implementing this succesfully. The challenges in achieving food security are many and the aim should be to achieve it at three levels:

  1. The Right to Food

In 1996, the number of hungry people worldwide was estimated to be around 840 million people. Today the figure is 826 million, of which 792 million live in developing countries. In South Africa, it is estimated that one in four of children under 6 have stunted growth because of malnutrition. It is a national and international shame, as the world produces surpluses and trade in food is happening on an enormous scale.

The right to adequate food and the right to freedom of hunger are fundamental human rights firmly established in several international agreements and in our Constitution (Art. 27.1.b). Sustaining access to an adequate food supply and the means of production means that certain essential elements must be in place.

  1. Access to land
  2. Access to land and security of tenure are widely recognised as preconditions for alleviating rural poverty and ensuring food security.

    History shows that true and genuine agrarian reform that included land redistribution, appropriate and adequate supporting services, and more equitable power structures, can be a very effective way to reduce rural poverty and increase ecological sustainability.

  3. Access to water
  4. In South African water is a major limiting factor for development in rural areas. The pollution of water resources by agricultural and industrial activities, and the overuse of water on the other hand, put pressures on this already limited resource. Agriculture consumes 70% of the freshwater withdrawn annually by humans. The degradation of river systems and coastal habitats through pollution, impact on entire freshwater and marine food chains. Furthermore, the move towards the privatisation of water will ensure that as water become more scarce, only the wealthy can afford it and the ability of the poor to produce their own food will become more limited. Soil erosion and desertification are also major threats to croplands.

  5. Access to biodiversity: seeds and genetic resources
  6. Sustaining agricultural biodiversity and the free flow of seed and other genetic resources is a precondition for food security and essential to sustainable livelihoods, agricultural productivity, and innovation of food production. Agricultural biodiversity includes the diversity of species and ecosystems that supports production. This is being lost at a rapid rate with 90% of crop varieties being lost in the past century. This diversity of breeds, varieties and systems provide security against future threats such as droughts as well as ecological changes. Major threats to farmers’ ability to develop, use and conserve biodiversity, are the increasing use of Intellecutal Property Rights (IPRs) including patents on living organisms, genetically modified seed, biopiracy, and the erosion of traditional farming practices.

    South Africa in general, is not paying much attention to agro-biodiversity, the Agriculture White Paper mentions it in passing only. The Biodiversity Act has just been published and it does not mention agriculture or agro-biodiversity at all. This is a serious ommission and urgent intervention is require to remedy this. Agro-biodiversity has huge benefits for the African farmer that has to operate in harsh conditions.

  7. Upholding farmers rights, community rights and indigenous rights

There is an erosion of the rights of local communities, small-scale farmers and indigenous peoples, in favour of the rights of large commercial farmers and multinational companies. This is reflected in:

The OAU made an effort to address this issue of community rights and the threats to it, by developing and adopting the African Model Law on The Protection of the Rights of Local Communities, Farmers and Breeders, and for the Regulation of Access to Biological Resources. This Model Law is meant to be used as a reference by African national authorities when they draft their own national laws relating to regulation of biological resources and knowledge. The law incorporates the obligations of the CBD on access, benefit sharing and community rights; the principles of the FAO International Undertaking on farmers’ rights and also deals with plant variety rights and IPRs.

  1. Appropriate Agricultural Systems
  1. IPRs on Life
  2. Farmers, fisherfolk and livestock keepers throughout the world have developed and sustainably used seeds and other genetic resources for millennia. Industrial intellectual property systems are a serious threat to the continued and sustainable use of seed and genetic resources by these groups.

    The advent of GE has allowed for genetic material, including seed, plants, animal and human genes to be patented and GMOs are, without exception, patented. Life forms can now become the intellectual property of a multinational corporation.

    The patent system has largely been driven by the biotech industry and this has implications in that farmers are prevented from replanting "proprietary" seed. The patenting of seed restricts farmers’ traditional right to save seeds from year to year. It also negates the role played by farmers in breeding and selecting their seed and it allows companies to apply for patent rights over plants traditionally used. Each country determines its own patent laws but through bilateral and international agreements, such as the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), richer countries seek protection of their companies’ activities worldwide.

  3. GMOs and Biosecurity

Genetic pollution is a serious threat to food sovereignty. The spread of genetic pollution into conventionally bred crops and in particular wild relatives is happening at an alarming rate. The effects of GE on our health and the environment are unknown.

In Africa, GMOs are marketed as a solution to poverty and food security and an opportunity Africa should not miss. Small farmers in particular, are targeted. The reality is that GM seed is a threat to food security and sustainable agriculture and has no proven long-term benefits to farmers, consumers or nature. The only obvious benefit is the huge profits generated for the companies developing and selling GMOs and associated products such as herbicides.

Apart from being locked into dependence, buying into the GE seed and chemical package has other possible adverse effects on the ability of farmers to survive. These include higher input costs; the possibility of the development of ‘super’ insects and ‘super’ weeds over a short time; reduced mixed farming with its high nutrient value and diversity; possible health risks; and finally a diminished biodiversity which could severely jeopardise food security for the poorest farmers of the developing world. To top it all, our GMO Act does not protect farmers as liability lies with the user of the technology.

The problem is not a shortage of food.

Underlying the biotech industry's claim that GE foods are needed to feed the world, lies a fundamentally flawed analysis of the causes of world hunger.

More food will undoubtedly have to be grown in future if the increasing numbers of people in the world are to be adequately fed. But the claim that GE crops have a positive contribution to make is only plausible if one mistakenly assumes that the hungry must be hungry because there is not enough food. In fact, more than enough food is already being produced to provide the world with a nutritious and adequate diet - according to the United Nations' World Food Programme, one-and-a-half times the amount required.

Patenting of seeds

The advent of GE has allowed for genetic material, including seed, plants, animal and human genes to be patented and GMOs are, without exception, patented. Unlike many of the seeds currently grown by Third World farmers, GE seeds do not come free and through IPRs deny farmers' their ancient right to save and exchange seeds from previous years.

By threatening the farm livelihoods of the very poor, GE crops can only undermine the food security of small producers - hardly a policy for "feeding the world".

Small-scale farmers in South Africa can only afford GE cottonseed through acquiring loans and are locked in a continuous debt cycle.

Contracts and licensing fees

Farmers in South Africa, as in other parts of the world, buying genetically engineered seeds have to sign growers’ contracts stating that:

Many farmers in the US have been forced by Monsanto to destroy their crops for not complying with this agreement and several court cases are pending.

Liability to farmers

Our current GMO Act (Act 15 of 1997) puts liability on the end user, the farmer. If a farmer plants GE crops and through cross pollination or by other means contaminates his neighbour’s crops, he is liable. If GMO crops cause environmental damage, the farmer will be liable. The American Corn Growers Association (ACGA) recommends that all farmers contact an attorney before signing any technology agreements and that they protect themselves and their neighbours from the liability of cross-pollination or wind-blown contamination from GMO varieties.

Control over national seed markets

In a context where multinationals are buying up seed companies, dominate seed markets in the South and restrict the choice of varieties available, poor farmers may find they have no choice but to use genetically engineered seeds. In Brazil for example, Monsanto controls 60% of the maize market, in Argentina 90% of all soya planted is GE with Monsanto having monopoly rights to the seed. In South Africa, Monsanto bought Sensako, a local seed producer. Another big South African seed company, Carnia, has sold a majority stake to Monsanto.

Terminator technology

Then, there is the new generation of GE seeds that has control systems in the seed, very useful in Africa where it is difficult to control farmers!

Terminator technology builds in a specific technology that effectively sterilises the seed and so makes it easier for companies to prevent replanting and require farmers to re-purchase the seed each year. Terminator seeds would have untold effects on millions of small farmers throughout Africa who just do not have the money to buy seeds every year.

Traitor technology (GURTS = Genetic Use Restriction Technologies)

This technology is about genetically engineering control mechanisms into the crops that binds the farmer to the corporation. Examples are modifying plants so that the plants will only flower, seed or sprout when sprayed with the company’s proprietary chemicals. These plants are all chemically dependent and are also called "junkie" plants.

The loss of international markets

The US has lost a large stake in its maize and soya markets because so many countries and in particular the EU, is rejecting GE products. Why should Africa accept the risk of GMOs, jeopardise our markets, when the rest of the world is rejecting it? It is difficult to compete on the world market and one way of doing it is to create niche markets. The GE-free market is one such niche market.

Lower Yields

The genetically-engineered crops now being cultivated, do not have significantly increased yields. In some cases, yields are lower than those for conventional varieties of the same crop. Several analysts conclude that any further increases in crop yields in modern food crops will almost certainly come from building on traditional breeding methods - not from transgenics.

Feed, Not Food

The two main GE crops grown commercially in the United States – soybeans and maize (corn) - are used to feed livestock, not people.

This may be good for GE companies and their partners in the grain trade, but it will do little to relieve world hunger. Indeed, livestock production in Africa has often been at the direct expense of poorer people's diets.

  1. The industrial model of agriculture

The industrial model of agriculture with its high inputs is not appropriate for small-scale farmers in Africa and often catapults farmers into a debt cycle. It is also responsible for enormous ecological damage and health concerns, prompting an unprecedented growth in the organic farming sector. Recent data suggests that there are four types of agroecological improvements that can play a substantial role in food production increases:

"It is important to take into account that trade liberalisation can undermine all advantages in costs and quality obtained by agroecological systems with unfair competitions from subsidized food imports."


  1. Food Sovereignty

Today’s hearings are about food security, but I would like to argue that this concept should be broadened to include food sovereignty. The concept of food sovereignty originated during the WFS in 1996 and is a response to neo-liberal policies that prioritises international trade and that has exacerbated food insecurity in the developing world. Food sovereignty means that the people and nations, have the right to define their agricultural and food policies.

A UNEP briefing for the Earth Summit, states: " Free trade of food is a misnomer as market access is restricted by tarrifs, WTO rules and agreements on Agriculture and Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs). Copyrights, trademarks and patents are biased in favour of those that are more trade literate, including the industrialised countries and multinational agribusiness corporations."

In June 2000, developing country WTO members stated in a proposal to the WTO that: "Under GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs) Article XXI, national security issues may be exempted from WTO trade disciplines. Food is also inextricably linked to national security and political sovereignty. Chronic food insecurity puts national security in jeopardy by placing at risk, the health of a large number of people, and also because it incites internal turmoil and instability."

At issue are agricultural policies that are not aimed at ensuring food security, but in terms of trade policy that will produce macroeconomic indicators of "growth".

Unfortunately, and to great detriment of the hungry of the world, government policies on food security have developed in an increasingly trade-oriented direction. This is based on the assumption that increased trade is one of the main requirements for achieving food security. The belief that trade can alleviate hunger is based on a simplistic quantitative perspective on food availability, disregarding many factors, above all the distribution of wealth and power. Global food production per person has outstripped population growth by 16% over the past 35 years and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts it will continue to do so for at least the next 30 years, even without factoring in GE crops.

Far from addressing these underlying structural causes of hunger, genetic engineering will do much to exacerbate them. Ensuring food security worldwide requires an approach to agriculture that is, in almost every respect, the reverse of that being promoted by biotech companies and their allies in government and regulatory authorities.

  1. Trade and multilateral agreements (WTO and other)
  2. In October, the WTO will meet again and agriculture will form an important part of the negotiations. The WTO is considered by many as an inadequate institution to deal with food and agriculture-related issues because it promotes free trade agreements in these sectors. Free trade agreements have forced hundreds of millions of farmers to give up their traditional agricultural practices and land. Food sovereignty is not anti-trade but allows for fair trade and national priorities to come first.

  3. National agricultural policies
  4. South Africa has implemented many of the policies dictated by the IMF and World Bank. The deregulation of agriculture, amongst other policies, has contributed to increased rural poverty, in particular for farmworkers.

  5. Food Aid and food dumping
  6. The recent Food Aid crisis in Southern Africa clearly illustrated the lack of sovereignty that ensues from dependence on food aid and the lengths to which the US and its aid agencies will go to find markets for its surplus, in this case, unwanted GE maize. Food Aid is commonly used to find markets for agricultural surplus and often destroys local economies.

  7. Funding for agricultural development

National policy and priorities should dictate funds directed to agricultural development. The privatisation of research and research institutions, including agricultural research, is a serious issue as it does not allow for sufficient public interest research. Research and development priorities must be balanced in the interests of small-scale farmers and the poor. It should be aimed at agricultural practices and systems that are sustainable and supportive and not to create new markets for multinational seed companies.


  1. Recommendations

Alternatives to Food Production

Use of Genetic Resources

Intellectual Poperty Rights and Patents:

GMOs and Biosafety

Food Sovereignty.

Corporate control and funding for agricultural development


Thank you.