South Africa must reject being GM pharm testing ground (16/7/2004)
Published in the Cape Times Letters, Friday 16 July 2004.
Your article on the possibility of growing "pharmed" crops (Pg. 3, July 13) in South Africa requires comment. The idea of using South Africa as a base to produce these genetically engineered plants, altered to produce pharmaceutically active compounds, raises several questions.
Firstly, has anybody bothered asking South Africans what they think? There is deep disquiet about our government's robust support of biotechnology and particularly against genetically modified (GM) food crops.
The suggestion, as set out in the article, that pharmaceutical compounds would be engineered into food crops, is something that would be strongly opposed by most rational South Africans, scientists and citizens alike. Even were these to be grown in strictly contained conditions, the risks remain excessive. Two cases of contamination of food crops by pharmed products in the US last year nearly allowed the release of an untested pig vaccine into the food supply, according to the journal Nature Biotechnology. Spurious internet adverts have been posted looking for growers for such crops and responses have reportedly been received from South African farmers.
When and if such plant based vaccines are developed - lets not forget this is an industry that is driven by hype and hubris and we appear to be a long way from an AIDS vaccine in any form - they must be grown in plants from a non-food species. Additionally such plants should be grown outside their natural habitat to prevent any gene flow. These are the minimum steps fundamental for a secure biosafety regime.
However it should not be necessary to use terrestrial plants at all, as plankton and algae may prove more suitable to use and could be far more readily contained. Production of blue green algae for food is a well-established science and fast growth rates can be achieved. But even this method has serious drawbacks as far as biosafety goes.
But to suggest that we are going to consider growing food crops, altered to produce pharmaceuticals, right here in South Africa is plainly unacceptable. We have an appallingly weak and opaque regulatory regime, that is devised more to facilitate the introduction of GMOs than to regulate them.
This appears to be yet another case of shifting another dirty industry to a developing nation so that we bear all of the risks, while the northern developers reap the genetically engineered fruits. As we have cast off colonialism, so too must we reject its latest iteration; bio-colonialism. Not only does bio-colonialism hold direct threats to our biodiversity but it equally exposes that very diversity to exploitation by wealthy individuals, nations and corporations, leaving us, yet again, to pick up the pieces. Remember; genetic engineering gives pollution a life of its own!
We must firmly tell the CSIR and the John Innes Institute; thanks but no thanks, we choose to keep pharming in containment, where it belongs; in Europe or the USA, where suitable facilities exist. Why should we take this risk with so little to gain?
Neither should we try to bargain for a "good deal" on this one. There is no "good deal". South Africans should reject this entire concept with the contempt it deserves.