SOUTH AFRICA: Local biotech perceptions survey shows improved awareness

It is estimated that the economic gains from biotech crops in South Africa in 2013 alone was $313-million, which shows that biotechnology, or genetically modified organisms (GMO), has a positive economic impact on South Africa, according to Department of Science and Technology director-general Phil Mjwara.

Speaking at the Public Perceptions of Biotechnology survey results presentation in Pretoria, on Tuesday, Mjwara noted that South Africa grew more than 2.7-million hectares of genetically modified (GM) crops in 2014.

“Between 86% and 90% of maize and soy are GM and 100% of cotton is GM,” he said, adding that, while GM crops have been approved and adopted in South Africa by science-based regulatory systems and farmers, they still remain a source of public controversy.

“While it is appropriate for the public to have varying opinions on GM crops, it is important to provide scientific evidence where deliberate misinformation is offered,” he said.

Mjwara pointed out that the biosafety of any GMO is regulated in South Africa under various Acts and regulations, complemented by different institutions and approaches.

Meanwhile, the survey of South African public’s perceptions of biotechnology focused broadly around biotechnology, as well as on more specific areas such as agricultural biotechnology, medical biotechnology and indigenous biotechnology knowledge.

The survey shows there has been a major increase in attitudes that favour buying GM food, with the proportion of the public who would buy GM food on the basis of health considerations increasing from 59% to 77%.

The public’s attitudes towards buying on the basis of cost considerations and environmental considerations have also increased from 51% to 73% and 50% to 68%, respectively.

When it comes to knowledge about biotechnology, the study reveals that most South Africans report having little or no knowledge about biotechnology.

“A younger and more privileged group report considerably greater knowledge than older and less privileged groups. Almost half of the public feel that biotechnology is too specialised for them to understand,” the survey says.

It further reveals that South Africans have used biotechnology in the context of indigenous knowledge systems (IKSs) and practices.

For instance, groups with low incomes and low levels of education may find it difficult to engage with concepts of mainstream biotechnology, though they harbour rich traditions of knowledge and IKS practice that may be successfully leveraged to build greater awareness of biotechnology.

When it comes to the perceptions of medical biotechnology, the overall knowledge about medical applications of biotechnology is similar to that of GM foods, which suggests that attitudes among the public cut across specific applications of biotechnology.

White and Indian South Africans are more likely to see biotechnology as an overall risk to society compared with black African and coloured groups.

Higher levels of education and living standards are also associated with an increased likelihood to view biotechnology as a risk.

Those living on rural farms and in urban informal areas were substantially more positive in their assessment of GM food.

“An individual with no ethical or religious objections to GMO is much more likely to believe that biotechnology is a benefit rather than a risk. If an individual thinks that government effectively regulates GM food, then he or she will be less likely to view biotechnology with uncertainty and more likely to rate it as a benefit than a risk,” the survey noted.

The survey further recommended that policy interventions needed to include a strategic approach to addressing different publics in different ways, drawing on the evidence related to their level of knowledge, attitudes and preferred sources of information.

-Written by Anine Kilian (Contirbuting Editor Online) in the Creamer Media.  See article link here. 

The Chinese Really Hate GMOs — Or Do They?

The United States and China have a couple things in common when it comes to genetically engineered crops. In both countries the government embraces them; in both, the people distrust them.

Keep those similarities in mind as you peruse the following headlines:

“China Wants GMOs. The Chinese People Don’t.” (Bloomberg)

“Can the Chinese Government Get Its People to Like G.M.O.s?” (The New Yorker)

“China Hates GMOs. Problem Is, China Really Needs GMOs” (Wired)

“In Push for G.M.O.s, China Battles Fears of 8-Legged Chickens” (The New York Times)

Notice that the United States goes unmentioned in these headlines. The story line that pops up again and again from Googling “China” and “GMO” is that China’s citizens loathe genetic engineering with a unique passion. Yet much of the evidence cited for this proposition has remarkable American parallels. Are the Chinese really so violently and uniquely anti-GMO?

For biotech agriculture, China is the future — the make-or-break country. China grows only 3 million acres now, mostly cotton. But the government has made developing a biotech-ag industry a top priority. Whether it will succeed depends on whether it can overcome the purportedly ferocious resistance of the Chinese people.

And, to be sure, the articles I just cited are studded with vituperative quotes from anti-biotech Chinese. In one, a GMO advocate is vilified as a “traitor.” In another, ChemChina’s acquisition of Syngenta is called “suicidal.” An army general says GMOs are a foreign conspiracy — “biological weapons” aimed at destroying the Chinese people’s health.

Yet if you follow these issues in the U.S., you know the Chinese have no monopoly on hyperbolic verbal abuse of biotechnology. “GMO foods are killing us,” cries a headline on an American website. “Monsanto is poisoning you,” an American demonstrator’s sign declares. Internet conspiracy theorists even blamed Chipotle’s food-safety problems last year on “bioterrorism attacks” by the biotech industry.

In both China and the U.S., then, some chunk of the population seems to really despise genetic engineering. Could the chunk be bigger in China than the U.S.? Possibly. In a Chinese poll 84% considered GMOs unsafe, while only 57% responded that way in an American poll. Neither poll, however, was entirely convincing.

Going by the old maxim to watch what people do rather than what they say, please note that in both countries people eat GMO food. There’s no sign of big consumer boycotts in either. There’s reason to suspect that in both countries most people know little about GMOs.

Perhaps, then, Chinese fears of GMOs aren’t so deeply rooted that an authoritarian government determined to create an ag-biotechnology industry couldn’t allay them.

What is different in China is the public’s distrust of the safety of food generally. The 2008 contaminated-milk crisis is just one of many food scandals still fresh in people’s minds. These memories incline them to believe wild charges, like the rumor last year that KFC was serving genetically modified chickens with six wings and eight legs.

Make no mistake, it won’t be easy for China’s government to change the public’s mind. But the task isn’t hopeless. Because the government sees GMOs playing a crucial role in the country’s food security, because developing an ag-biotech industry ranks high on its industrial-policy wish list, it’s certain to give it a try.

If it succeeds, China could end up five or ten years from now growing more of its own GMO soybeans and importing fewer from the U.S. and Brazil. Alternatively, the country’s demand for animal feed could continue to increase, requiring both imports and domestic production.

Or, fear of eight-legged genetically engineered chickens could make success impossible. That’s what the predominant story line suggests will happen. You have to wonder, though, about the evidence supporting that line.

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Curious about where China’s demand for imported food and agricultural products is going? At the DTN/The Progressive Farmer Ag Summit in Chicago this December 5-7, Informa Economics CEO Tom Scott will give a sneak peak into the company’s research on export prospects to China and other large commodity markets.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Ag Summit. The editors have put together a strong lineup of presentations and breakout sessions. And with several hundred leading producers expected to join us (last year, total attendance topped 700), there will be plenty of networking opportunities, as well.

To get more information and register, check out http://tiny.cc/5wligy

-Written by Urban Lehner in The Progressive Farmer.  See article link here. Urban Lehner can be reached at urbanity@hotmail.com.

Philippine court lifts ban on GM eggplant, now what?

[MANILA] On 26 July, the Philippine Supreme Court reversed its December 2015 decision to stop the field testing, propagation, commercialisation and importation of genetically modified (GM) foods, including the controversial Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) eggplant. The reversal raises several questions: Will the GM eggplant soon be available on the market? How does this affect food labelling of GM foods? And how does the high court’s vacillation affect the morale of local scientists? Saturnina Halos, chair of the Department of Agriculture’s biotechnology advisory team, clarifies that “the availability of the GM eggplant will depend on whether the University of the Philippines Los Baños has undertaken all the necessary studies to submit data on these considerations”.

There’s no substantial difference between genetically engineered and conventionally bred food crops.

–Peter Davies, Cornell University

She notes the GM eggplant has yet to undergo another review process under the new regulatory scheme where the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Health are active participants. For Peter Davies, international professor of plant biology at Cornell University in the US, no labelling is needed “as every reputable scientific body worldwide has declared there’s no substantial difference between genetically engineered and conventionally bred food crops”. “However, it is my opinion that as Bt eggplant is healthier for the customer, being free of pesticides, and for the farmers who no longer need to spray pesticides daily, a label such as ‘wonderful pesticide-free talong (eggplant)’ would be appropriate,” Davies says. Davies believes “the reversal is a great morale booster for plant scientists worldwide, especially in the Philippines, as it justifies their efforts to produce healthier pesticide-free food for consumers while improving the livelihood of farmers and the environment in which they work”. Halos, however, also sees the downside of the recent turn of events: “Many scientists feel they wasted emotional investment in the case. They feel good about the reversal yet they find the case to be a waste of effort and time.”

-Written by Katharina Schmidt in SciDev.net.  See article link here.

No quick fix from GM food — Piñol

AGRICULTURE Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol said genetically modified (GM) foods won’t be a “quick fix” in filling in gaps in the food supply.

“Personally, I’m not really convinced that GM plants are the quick-fix solution to our shortage of food,” Mr. Piñol told BusinessWorld in a phone interview.

He said Vietnam and Thailand have not extensively adopted GM and yet they produce enough to become the world’s second and third-largest rice exporters, respectively.

“If you look at Vietnam and Thailand, they do not embrace GM but they are self-sufficient. The belief that GM will provide the magical solution to our shortages… should be reviewed,” said Mr. Piñol.

This is the first time Mr. Piñol has indicated his position on GM, having asked previously for more time to evaluate the technology.

The current administration’s view is a reversal of former Agriculture Secretary Proceso J. Alcala’s position, which sought to incorporate GM in pushing up productivity.

Mr. Piñol added that he will nonetheless abide by the recent decision of the Supreme Court.

The country’s top court halted in December the use, field testing, and propagation of Bacillus thuringensis (Bt) eggplant, with the decision applicable to all genetically modified foods that are subject to regulation here.

To lift the moratorium, a new set of regulations required tighter environmental scrutiny before biosafety permits are issued, addressing one of the issues the Supreme Court cited when it voided the old rules, in place since 2002.

In August, however, the Supreme Court reversed itself since the initial decision was based on petitions that were rendered moot because Bt eggplant field trials had been completed and the biosafety permits issued by the regulator had expired.

For his part, Vivencio R. Mamaril, officer-in-charge at the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), cited yellow corn production, which is made up of 90% GM.

“We are sufficient in corn and that’s because of the GM technology,” Mr. Mamaril said in a phone interview, referring to yellow corn, which is used for feed.

Mr. Mamaril added that he has requested a meeting with Mr. Piñol to present the biotechnology program.

The bureau, along with the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines and the independent Scientific and Technical Review Panel, is in charge of biosafety, risk assessment, and regulation for all GM organisms that enter the Philippines.

The Philippines is the first country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to initiate a biotechnology regulatory system.

Philippine Maize Federation, Inc. (PhilMaize) President Roger V. Navarro said the country should consider adopting new ways to address the widening demand for food on the back of rapid population growth.

“There are a number of ways in order to achieve food sufficiency, like good agriculture practice, mechanization, post-harvest (management), enabling policies and certainly biotechnology is just one — to increase production per unit of land,” Mr. Navarro said in a mobile message.

“Our land is not increasing, but the demand is, ergo technology must come into play,” PhilMaize’s president added.

Last year, the country achieved 113% sufficiency in yellow corn, according to Mr. Navarro.

-Written by Janina C. Lim in BusinessWorld.  See article link here.