Developing safe and sustainable biotech products is one way of mitigating the fallout from persistent drought conditions. Consecutive poor rainfall seasons in rural provinces demand innovation if food security is to be ensured.

The benefits of biotechnology in addressing food security and socio-economic issues came into sharp focus this week at the Biosafety Symposium, held at the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

The purpose of the symposium was to address socio-economic issues related to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Biosafety South Africa, an initiative of the DST, has been mandated to enable safe, sustainable and compliant research, development, production, use and application of technology - in particular GMOs. 

Biosafety South Africa believes that innovation in biotechnology ensures the development of safe, sustainable biotech products, as a way to sustain food production amid the current climatic conditions.

GMO crops play a significant role in South African agricultural productivity and are designed to promote food safety. 

In 2016, South Africa planted 2,66 million hectares of the three major biotech crops: maize, soybean and cotton.  It is estimated that the economic gains from biotech crops for South Africa for the period 1998 to 2015 were approximately US$2,1 billion, with US$237 million for 2015 alone.  South Africa is ranked first in Africa and ninth globally as a mega-biotech country on the basis of the number of hectares of biotech crops under cultivation.

Worldwide, GMOs have enabled farmers to boost the quality of their harvests.  Dr Keith Redenbaugh, Director of Regulatory Affairs at Arcadia Biosciences in the USA, said that the company was able to produce virus-resistant squash and rainbow papayas, among other products.  Dr Redenbaugh was part of the team that commercialised the very first GM food, Flavr Savr Tomato in 1994, as well as one of the most recent ones, the Artic Apple.

The Chief Director: Biodiversity at the Department of Environmental Affairs, Ms Wadzi Mandivenyi, said, “South Africa has a well-established, representative and robust regulatory framework for GMOs and a successful record of accomplishment in science-based risk assessment, commercialisation and post-release management of GMOs”.

Due to the country’s rich biodiversity, greater care has to be exercised in the implementation of GM technology to protect human and animal health, as well as the environment.  GMOs are regulated under the GMO Act, 1997, which sets strict compliance measures for the research, production and marketing of GMOs.

“GMO crops have already provided farmers with agricultural innovation they never thought possible.  The future promises even greater progress,” concluded Mandivenyi.