In a recent piece on AfricaBio's founding members, we noted the stranglehold of corporate interests that had shaped the organisation -- interests which AfricaBio has done its very best to conceal.
Leading members of AfricaBio have been at the heart of South Africa's regulatory system from the beginning, helping to shape a system that is now promoted as a model for the rest of Africa.
For instance, a leading member of AfricaBio's board is Jennifer Thompson, a Professor at the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Cape Town. Thompson is also an advisor to the biotech-industry funded Council for Biotechnology Information in the US, a Board Member of the biotech-industry backed ISAAA,as well as Chair of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, which receives backing from the industry, the US and USAID to introduce GM crops into Africa.
Thompson was involved in the drafting of the South African Biotechnology Strategy and was a Chair of SAGENE, South Africa's orginal regulatory body for GM crops. She is also a member of South Africa's current Advisory Committee, which provides expert technical advice on regulatory decisions. Other members of the Advisory Committee are also said to be members of AfricaBio or to be closely connected to members.
Here's a profile of SAGENE, the key body in shaping a regulatory regime that has made possible one of the most rapid introductions of GM crops anywhere in the world.
SAGENE - a GM WATCH profile
(Our thanks to Mariam Mayet of the African Centre for Biosafety for her considerable help in constructing this profile).
The South African Committee on Genetic Experimentation (SAGENE) was South Africa's first regulatory body relevant to GMOs. Established as early as 1979 under South Africa's then apartheid regime, its members at this stage undertook laboratory inspections, provided experimental guidelines, and guidelines for GM microorganisms.
In 1989 SAGENE advised the Dept of Agriculture when it received its first application for a GM field trial. This was for Bt cotton and it was authorised in terms of the Pest Control Act.
In 1989, SAGENE had been given the mandate to advise on biosafety issues. SAGENE was legally reconstituted in 1992 and again in January 1994. The latter agreement came into effect just a few months before the first democractic election in South Africa.
SAGENE's new terms of reference included furnishing advice to any Minister, statutory or government body on any form of legislation or controls pertaining to the importation and/or release into the environment of GMOs.
As the new South African governement, which was ushered in on the 27th April 1994, had no particular knowledge or expertise in these areas, regulatory matters were left very much in the hands of SAGENE.
SAGENE continued to act as the regulators until the GMO Act came into effect on 1st December 1999. By the time of the GMO Act a considerable number of field trial permits had been granted and Monsanto's Bt cotton and its 'Yieldguard' maize (MON810) had already been commercialised.
SAGENE was not only the driving force behind a rapid rate of GMO approvals. The task of drafting the GMO Act had also fallen principally to SAGENE. This meant that industry-linked SAGENE members like Muffy Koch, who is part of the industry-backed lobby group AfricaBio, and Jane Morris, who was nominated onto SAGENE by the South African Chamber of Business, were able to play a key role in the drafting of the Act. SAGENE's chair, Jennifer Thompson, has also been a leading member of AfricaBio.
The GMO ACT led to SAGENE being reconstituted as an Advisory Commitee and a sub-committee to provide expert advice on GM crop releases to an Executive Council. Although the latter is the final decision making body, heavy reliance is placed on the Advisory Commitee to furnish expert scientific and technical advice. This means that key guidance on regulatory maters continues to come from advisors like Thompson and Koch who are also part of an industry-directed GM lobby.