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Are you eating genetically modified food? November 8, 2012

Posted by Andreas in Environment, genetic engineering.
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Wow, I haven’t posted anything for a very long time! I’ll try to be a bit more active again from now on.

Are you eating genetically modified food?

(This column was first published on 2012-11-06 at News24 here)

Are you consuming food made using genetically modified (GM) crops? You probably are, even if you’re not aware of it.

The Washington-based Environmental Working Group recently conducted an interesting investigation. Using 2011 data provided by the US Department of Agriculture, they estimated that average Americans consume more than their body weight – 193 pounds or about 87.5 kg – in GM food every year.

The South African government along with much of our agriculture industry has been as enthusiastic about genetic engineering as their US counterparts. This remains the only country in the world that allows GM varieties of its national staple food – white maize – to be grown commercially. In the 2011/2012 season approximately 72% of all maize seed sold in South Africa was GM.

So, unless you’re extremely vigilant or on an organic-only diet, chances are pretty good that you are eating your share of GM food on a regular basis, since maize and its by-products find their way into a surprisingly wide variety of food.

Exactly what the human health implications are remains a very controversial topic. In September, a French study published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal argued that rats fed on GM maize and exposed to Monsanto’s Roundup, a glyphosate herbicide which is routinely sprayed on this maize, increased the rate of premature death in the animals compared to control groups.

They also claimed a significantly raised incidence of cancerous tumours and severe kidney and liver damage. The variety of maize used, Monsanto’s NK603, has been approved in South Africa since 2002 and is extensively planted as yellow and white maize.

As soon as it was released, the study was simultaneously embraced by GM critics and branded as inadequate and deeply flawed by pundits of the technology. What remains a fact, however, is that precious little independent, large-scale and long-term research into the human health effects of GM crops has ever been conducted anywhere. We continue to be our own guinea pigs in this area.

The detrimental environmental impact of GM crops is less contentious. For years, one of the biotech industry’s main selling points has been the promise that GM crops would reduce the use of toxic pesticides.

Some GM crop varieties are engineered to release their own insecticide, supposedly reducing the need for farmers to apply synthetic equivalents. Others GM crops are designed to be resistant to glyphosate herbicides like Roundup. In this case the idea is that limited applications of glyphosate would be sufficient to control weeds while doing no harm to the crops themselves.

There are now increasingly worrying signs, however, that nature is beating the genetic engineers at their game. In September, a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe, showed that herbicide use in the USA increased by 239 million kilograms or about 11% between 1996 and 2011, because weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to glyphosate, some developing into so-called superweeds.

Statistics on pesticide use in South Africa are difficult to come by, but data from the UN show that glyphosate imports have risen from 12 million litres in 2006 to 20 million litres in 2011.

Last month also saw researchers from Iowa State University release the results of a study which indicates that western corn rootworm, an insect very destructive to maize plants, has developed resistance to Monsanto’s insecticide-producing YieldGuard variety of GM maize. In the past, this pest, which feeds exclusively on maize, was largely controlled by the age-old technique of crop rotation with farmers alternating their plantings of maize with other crops, like soybeans. As insect resistance to GM crops increases, we can expect the use of toxic insecticides to rise as well.

There is some good news for consumers who want to steer clear of GM food though. On 9 October, the Department of Trade and Industry published a draft amendment to the regulations that govern the labelling of GM food in South Africa. If it’s approved – and let’s hope it is – all imported and locally produced goods that contains 5% or more GM components or ingredients have to be labelled as “contains genetically modified ingredients or components”, giving South Africans the option to choose if they want to support this technology or not.

– Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

Designer animals or Frankenbeasts? August 18, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Column, Environment, genetic engineering, rant, Sustainable Living.
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Designer animals or Frankenbeasts?

(This column was first published on 2010-07-21 at News24 here)

“You‘re always on about the dangers of genetically modified plants, but what about genetically modified animals!?” my friend Mike complained the other day. “You know, the idea of pre-plucked chickens and allergy-proof cats just freaks me out a whole lot more than the thought of insect-resistant millies!”

In his defence, Mike had just finished reading a particularly dystopian sci-fi novel on the topic, but I had to admit that I didn’t really know much about genetically modified (GM) animals. So it came as quite a shock when I found out that millions of the critters are produced worldwide every year and that they come with some rather troubling potential implications, environmental and otherwise.

GM animals are creatures whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated by scientists, by disabling, removing or adding bits of DNA, in order to give them new characteristics. This is different from cloning, which involves creating an identical copy of adult animals from their genetic material.

The reason why you and I haven’t heard much about GM animals is that until now they’ve been largely confined to laboratory environments. It’s also a lot trickier to successfully fiddle with the genetic make-up of animals than it is to modify plants. In recent years, however, technological advances have started to make the process easier, cheaper and more precise, opening the door to a rapidly growing range of possibilities in the field.

Mice and rats have been the most popular species to attract the attention of genetic engineers. Millions are used in laboratory experiments every year. Some are designed to run twice as far as normal mice or not to be afraid of cats. Others are genetically modified to model human diseases, to test the toxicity of chemicals or the efficacy of new drugs.

Manufacturing GM lab rodents is already a multi-million dollar industry and the potential for profitable commercial applications is driving a lot of the research. In the future, GM pigs may be used to grow entire organs – livers, kidneys, hearts, pancreas – for xenotransplantation into humans. Pharmaceutical companies are turning GM animals into medicine factories. Goats, cows, chickens, rabbits, sheep and pigs have been engineered to produce various medically valuable proteins and hormones in their milk, blood, eggs, urine and sperm.

Think goats that generate anti blood clotting drugs and chickens that lay eggs enriched in cancer-fighting proteins. Most of these have yet to be approved for commercial use and with the exception of some ornamental aquarium fish species made fluorescent by inserting jellyfish genes into their DNA, none have made it past the laboratory door.

From an environmental perspective, one of the biggest concerns lies in what some expect to be the widespread use of GM animals in future agriculture and food production. GM pigs with flesh enriched in omega 3 fatty acids; GM cattle resistant to udder infection and mad cow disease; GM sheep that produce more wool; fast growing GM salmon, carp, catfish and tilapia – the possibilities are endless.

But what happens if these manufactured species interbreed with normal and wild animals? What about the ethical and animal welfare considerations? And who will own the patents to these proprietary GM species and through them control a large chunk of our food supply?

GM animal advocates say it’s nothing more than a modern, scientific progression of what humans have been doing for millennia: domesticating, breeding and improving animals. But surely there is a qualitative difference between getting your best bull to mate with your neighbour’s healthiest cow and splicing human genes into a pig!

It’s a complicated debate, I know. After all, it’s genetically altered bacteria that manufacture the insulin which keeps the world’s diabetics on their feet. It just seems to me that we’ve reached a stage in our capacity to modify large life forms that warrants an honest, public discussion between the scientists and companies behind the research and us, the future consumers of their creations. I for one don’t want to live on The Island of Doctor Moreau.

The superweeds cometh August 6, 2010

Posted by Andreas in Environment, genetic engineering, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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The superweeds cometh

(This column was first published on 2010-06-02 at News24 here)

“It won’t happen, because it can’t happen.” That, in a nutshell, has always been the response of biotechnology companies like Monsanto whenever critics have suggested that the widespread introduction of pesticide-resistant genetically modified crops will inevitably lead to the emergence of pesticide-resistant weeds, dubbed superweeds. Well, guess what? They’re here!

The first weed that could stand up to glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s best-selling “broad spectrum” herbicide Roundup, made its appearance in a Delaware soybean field in 2000. Today, a further ten Roundup-resistant species have been reported in fields planted with genetically modified cotton, soy and maize in 22 US states and further afield in Argentina and Brazil.

In parts of the US South, including Georgia, Arkansas, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky, soybean fields have been infested with a virulent strain of Roundup-resistant pigweed, which has been described as the perfect superweed. It grows to a height of three metres at a rate of more than an inch a day, is drought hardy, produces 10 000 seeds at a time and happily smothers young soy seedlings.

The rationale behind herbicide-resistant crop plants is simple enough. A farmer who’s planted so-called Roundup Ready cotton, for instance, simply douses his entire field with Roundup which will kill every plant it comes in contact with other than the cotton itself, saving the farmer time and increasing his productivity. For Monsanto, who supply the proprietary genetically-modified cotton seeds along with the Roundup every season, it’s a very profitable arrangement. Even the environment is supposed to benefit since farmers are theoretically expected to require less herbicide.

In reality, of course, things aren’t quite that simple. As early as the 90s, opponents of genetically engineered crops suggested that herbicide-resistant plants would pass on their special genetically-engineered traits to closely related weeds by cross-breeding and hybridisation. Others argued that the extensive use of a single chemical for weed control was bound to result in the evolution of superweeds. According to journalist and author Michael Pollan, “the theory of natural selection predicts that resistance will appear whenever you attempt to eradicate a pest […] using such a heavy-handed approach”.

With the large-scale introduction of herbicide-resistant crops, sales of glyphosate in the USA alone sky-rocketed by a factor of 15 between 1994 and 2005 and sure enough superweeds started to proliferate gradually and in tandem. In response to the appearance of ever-hardier weeds, farmers found themselves needing to apply extra lashings of glyphosate and eventually resorted to additional, more potent weedkillers as well, landing themselves in a herbicide treadmill and reversing the intended trend of reduced chemical use.

All of this is rather ominous for us here in South Africa. While we weren’t among the earliest adopters of genetically-modified crops, local agriculture along with the government have enthusiastically embraced the technology in recent years. South Africa remains the only country to have allowed the large-scale commercial cultivation of a genetically modified crop that is also one of its staple foods. Many of the mielie fields in this country are planted with herbicide-resistant genetically modified maize. So don’t be surprised if stories about pernicious superweeds start to rear their ugly heads in due course.

What are the alternatives? A return to conventional crops, seasonal crop rotation and weed control using a combination of different herbicides and mechanical cultivation techniques such as regular ploughing. Or, much better yet, a courageous move to organic agriculture with weed and pest control through natural, sustainable and environmentally-friendly methods. “That won’t happen, because it can’t happen”, the biotech multinationals tell us. “We need genetically modified crops to feed the world’s growing population”, they insist. Perhaps it’s time we stopped listening to them.

Poison on the Platter October 19, 2009

Posted by Andreas in Environment, Film screening, genetic engineering, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Free screenings of a powerful new documentary about genetically modified food

Poison on the Platter, a short documentary film about the detrimental effects of genetically modified crops in India, which will be screened at the Labia on Orange cinema on Tuesday 27 October at 6.15pm and on Wednesday 28 October at 6.15pm.

Entrance to both screenings is free of charge, but since only a limited number of seats are available, you are strongly encouraged to reserve tickets by calling the Labia at 021 424 5927.

While the European Union has decisively rejected the use of genetically modified food crops, powerful multinational biotech companies like Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont are aggressively marketing these crops in developing countries such as South Africa, India and Brazil.

Poison on the Platter is a short (26 min), but powerful documentary film by well-known Bollywood director Ajay Kanchan that critically examines this process with special reference to India. The film stresses the numerous detrimental effects genetically modified crops have on the environment, human health, sustainable agriculture and people’s right to safe food.

Devinder Sharma

Devinder Sharma

The Indian experience is of great relevance to South Africa, where the widespread introduction of commercial genetically modified crops including cotton, soy and maize has been actively promoted by the government and the biotech industry without significant public participation or awareness.

Poison on the Platter is an eye-opener for anyone who is concerned about the proliferation of genetically modified food crops in South Africa.

The screenings will be followed by an open discussion with Devinder Sharma, a prominent Indian food policy analyst, author and chair of the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security in India, who was instrumental in the production of the film.

This event is presented by the Labia, Biowatch, Surplus People Project, Agroecology and Family Farming (AS-PTA) from Brazil, Chetna Organic Farmers Association from India, the African Centre for Biosafety, SAFeAGE, Woman on Farms Project and Workers World Media Productions and While You Were Sleeping, a Cape Town-based non-profit film collective committed to bringing progressive, non-mainstream documentaries with important social and environmental messages to South African audiences.


The Labia:
021 424 5927

Michelle Pressend
082 564 1581

Surplus People Project:
Tennille Rode
021 448 5605

While You Were Sleeping:
Andreas Späth
084 772 1056

Genetically modified crops in your neighbourhood? March 3, 2008

Posted by Andreas in Environment, genetic engineering, Press Release, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Do you know if there are any trial fields for genetically modified crops near where you live? According to the African Centre for Biosafety:

Their ability to escape into the environment is well known. Their safety for people with allergies remains in question. Yet we continue to experiment with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and some have even been commercially released. And yes, they may be growing, undetected, unmarked and right out in the open in a field near you.

How would you ever know? If the Department of Agriculture and the biotechnology industry have their way, you should never find out. Unless, of course, you fall ill.


“Questions around GMO field trials in South Africa continue to be asked – where exactly are they happening, when will there be adequate environmental risk assessment and post–release monitoring, what are the effects on neighbours of GMO field trials and what are the cumulative effects of all the field trials that have happened in South Africa?” says ACB director, Mariam Mayet.


“The latest report contains both good and bad news,” says Mayet. “The good news is that there were significant refusals as a result of anti-GMO activism. More good news is that there were far fewer field trials during 2007 than 2006.”
The bad news is that there were 21 different field sites in 2007, as well as 11 medical clinical trials including GM HIV vaccine and GM TB vaccine. “The 21 field sites involved GM potatoes, GM cotton, GM maize, GM sugarcane, GM groundnuts and GM maize. Trials were conducted by both the gene giants and also public sector research institutions.”
“One of the biggest problems is that neither biotech companies nor the Department of Agriculture are prepared to reveal exactly which fields have been planted with GMOs,” says Mayet. “This is considered ‘commercially confidential information’.”

Find out if there are any trial plots near you by consulting the ACB’s updated biohazards map:


Go Organic! July 13, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Environment, genetic engineering, Sustainable Living.
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Organic agriculture is a lovely idea, but it’s only for bunny-hugging rich folks with a bad conscience and it certainly won’t feed the world, right!?

In order to keep feeding the planet’s growing population we need industrialised factory farming with high inputs of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides and high-tech genetically engineered crops, right!?

Wrong. In a new study, researchers from the University of Michigan have found that “organic farming can yield up to three times as much food as conventional farming on the same amount of land”.

According to Ivette Perfecto (great name!), a Professor at the university’s School of Natural Resources and Environment and one of the study’s co-authors:

My hope is that we can finally put a nail in the coffin of the idea that you can’t produce enough food through organic agriculture.


Corporate interest in agriculture and the way agriculture research has been conducted in land grant institutions, with a lot of influence by the chemical companies and pesticide companies as well as fertilizer companies—all have been playing an important role in convincing the public that you need to have these inputs to produce food.

They found that “in developed countries, yields were almost equal on organic and conventional farms. In developing countries, food production could double or triple using organic methods.”

The rise of the super weeds April 12, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Environment, genetic engineering, News.
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One of the environmental threats that campaigners opposed to genetically engineered (GE) crops have long warned about is the possible emergence of herbicide-resistant super weeds. Pro-GE pundits and multinationals like Monsanto have always dismissed these suggestion as fear mongering nonsense.

There is, however, growing evidence that such super weeds are in fact flourishing in certain areas and causing havoc in farming communities.

The biotech industry has been heavily marketing agricultural crops that are resistant to specific herbicides such as for example genetically engineered cotton that is resistant to Monsanto’s glyphosphate-based product Roundup.

The idea is that farmers who plant these proprietary crops only need to apply relatively small amounts of proprietary herbicide which will kill all plants, including weeds, with the exception of the crop plants themselves.

This would lead to lower overall herbicide use (and hence be environmentally friendly), easier crop cultivation, decreased crop losses and enhanced yields.

That all sounds great in theory, but GE-opponents warned that such practices would ultimately spawn so-called super weeds resistant to the glyphosphate herbicides. And then, farmers would be in real trouble!

It turns out that the concerns over super weeds may have been very well founded.

The Delta Farm Press (not exactly the most radical of sources when it comes to environmental issues) reports that glyphosphate-resistant horseweed (which has been shown to reduce cotton yields by up to 70 percent), Palmer pigweed and waterhemp have been causing major problems for cotton farmers in Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Georgia and the Carolinas.

Glyphosphate-resistant horseweed has spread much more quickly than anticipated […].


The staggering increase in glyphosate-resistant horseweed followed a spectacular rise in the amount of glyphosate products (Roundup, Touchdown and others) being applied in cotton and other glyphosate-tolerant crops.

[According to Larry Steckel, Extension weed scientist with the University of Tennessee,] “We saw a 752-percent increase in glyphosate applications between 1997 and 2003″[emphasis added] […]


Weed scientists say glyphosate-resistant horseweed and pigweed can be managed with a combination of herbicides, but it will cost growers more.

These are sobering if not unexpected findings and, for me at least, they provide more concrete evidence that genetically-engineered agricultural crops will result in more damage than benefits in the long run.

A documentary about biotechnology April 11, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Cape Town, Environment, Film screening, genetic engineering.

Permacore, a Cape Town group of permaculturists, are screening a documentary called Seeds of Change this Thursday (12 April) at 7pm at The Door in the Floor, Trill Road, Observatory. I’ve stolen all of the info from urban sprout

I know this is extremely short-notice, but I thought this looks very, very interesting and worth promoting here. Unfortunately I won’t be able to make it to the screening myself.

If you get there early food will be available to order in the courtyard. Texting 084 951 5535 if you plan to eat will assist with the catering. Or email info@permacore.org.za for more info.

Seeds of Change is a 70 minute fast-paced and moving documentary about the views of western Canadian farmers on both the benefits and risks associated with using genetically modified crops.

“Our film addresses the biotechnology industry and how it has changed the face of agriculture. As such it has great relevance for stakeholders around the world – activists, industry people, policymakers, and farmers not least among them,” states video researcher Stéphane McLachlan.

Genetically engineered bee killer ? March 30, 2007

Posted by Andreas in bees, Environment, genetic engineering, News, Sustainable Living.

I came across this really worrying article in Spiegel Online (the virtual version of the reputable German lefty print magazine Der Spiegel) that I though was scary enough to warrant quoting at some length.

For unknown reasons, bee populations throughout Germany are disappearing […] [I]n the United States, […] bees are dying in such dramatic numbers that the economic consequences could soon be dire. No one knows what is causing the bees to perish, but some experts believe that the large-scale use of genetically modified plants in the US could be a factor.


Manfred Hederer, the president of the German Beekeepers Association, […] reported a 25 percent drop in bee populations throughout Germany. In isolated cases, says Hederer, declines of up to 80 percent have been reported. He speculates that “a particular toxin, some agent with which we are not familiar,” is killing the bees.


Since last November, the US has seen a decline in bee populations so dramatic that it eclipses all previous incidences of mass mortality. Beekeepers on the east coast of the United States complain that they have lost more than 70 percent of their stock since late last year, while the west coast has seen a decline of up to 60 percent.


Millions of bees have simply vanished. In most cases, all that’s left in the hives are the doomed offspring. But dead bees are nowhere to be found — neither in nor anywhere close to the hives.


In many cases, scientists have found evidence of almost all known bee viruses in the few surviving bees found in the hives after most have disappeared. Some had five or six infections at the same time and were infested with fungi — a sign, experts say, that the insects’ immune system may have collapsed.

The scientists are also surprised that bees and other insects usually leave the abandoned hives untouched. Nearby bee populations or parasites would normally raid the honey and pollen stores of colonies that have died for other reasons, such as excessive winter cold. “This suggests that there is something toxic in the colony itself which is repelling them”.

A massive dying off of bee colonies is obviously a real disaster, but what had me most worried was the possible connection with genetically engineered crops, especially BT corn, which is, of course, grown here in South Africa.

[…] [R]esearchers [at the University of Jena] examined the effects of pollen from a genetically modified maize variant called “Bt corn” on bees. […] The study concluded that there was no evidence of a “toxic effect of Bt corn on healthy honeybee populations.” But when, by sheer chance, the bees used in the experiments were infested with a parasite, something eerie happened. According to the Jena study, a “significantly stronger decline in the number of bees” occurred among the insects that had been fed a highly concentrated Bt poison feed.

According to Hans-Hinrich Kaatz, a professor at the University of Halle in eastern Germany and the director of the study, the bacterial toxin in the genetically modified corn may have “altered the surface of the bee’s intestines, sufficiently weakening the bees to allow the parasites to gain entry — or perhaps it was the other way around. We don’t know.”

I know one small study proves nothing and this sort of thing should not be used to whip people up into an irrational frenzy. This is, however, exactly the kind of scenario many anti-GE people warn us about.

What are the consequences of introducing artificially manufactured life forms (which we understand only to a limited degree) into an exceedingly intricate, but increasingly threatened and fragile natural environment (which we understand very poorly in its overall complexity)?

For all our sakes, let’s hope that the dying of the bees has nothing to do with genetically engineered crops, because if it does, this may only be the first sign of a much larger disaster.

South Africa heads for a genetically engineered future January 25, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Environment, genetic engineering, News, South Africa.
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AgriSA (formerly the South African Agricultural Union, which according to its website “serves some 70 000 large and small-scale commercial farmer members”) announced on Tuesday that the cultivation of genetically engineered (GE) crops in South Africa increased by a whopping 180% (by area) from last year to a current total of 1.4 million hectares.

Only India has a faster growth rate (192%) and South Africa is now the eighth biggest producer of GE crops worldwide with 44% of all maize, 80% of all soya and 90% of all cotton grown in the country being genetically engineered.

There has been considerable opposition to the introduction and accelerated cultivation of these crops in SA, especially from activist groups like SAFeAGE, Biowatch and Earthlife Africa, but much of it appears has fallen on deaf ears. The ANC government seems to be as steadfastly pro genetic engineering as it is pro nuclear power.

It is pretty safe to say that the vast majority of South Africans are unaware of the increasing quantities of GE crops being grown in the country. Most, in fact, are entirely unaware of what GE crops are in the first place and what their potential environmental, economic and health impacts may be.

Under similar circumstances free-market advocates may conceivably (I know, you’re laughing, but just bear with me on this one) claim that we should simply let the market take care of the situation. If consumers don’t want foods and other products that contain GE components, they won’t buy them and in the absence of a profitable market for its goods, the GE industry will simply wither away.

In South Africa we can’t even appeal to this mystical magical market mechanism (if we really wanted to, ahem) since consumers here have no choice in the matter at all. Even if they were the most GE-informed community in the world they wouldn’t have that choice.

In South Africa, GE crops and products containing them are still not required to be kept separate from non-GE crops, do not have to be appropriately labelled (although some retailers do it voluntarily) and, in effect, can not be traced through the various stages of production and processing.

Personally, I think all of this sucks on a number of levels – a major disaster on a national scale.

So what am I going to do about it? Well, I’ll talk to as many people about GE crops in South Africa (especially any Free State mielie farmers I come across), I’ll support organisations such as Biowatch and SAFeAGE wherever and whenever I can (any night-time raids on GE fields, count me in), I’ll try to grow more food in my garden and I’ll eat as much seasonal, locally-grown organic produce as I can lay my hands on (if you live in Cape Town, I can highly recommend Wild Organic Foods and The Ethical Co-op). It doesn’t sound like a lot, I know, but… baby steps, right!?