European authorities are battling a GM “bio-weapon,” and they don’t care if your nation is on the firing line.
President Trump met with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and other officials in Washington on Monday to talk about the threats posed by China and Russia. The South African visit comes as scientists on both sides of the Atlantic speak out about the anti-GM “Bt cotton” at stake, explaining in grave terms the critical need to protect future generations of plants and animals from a fast-food-version GM.
Some years ago, scientists from around the world started using DNA-based gene “harvesting” technology to harvest valuable traits from plants and animals, explaining: “Some GM organisms, such as soybeans, can be grown without pollinating insects and that reduces the need for farmers to buy extra pesticides and fertilizers.”
Now researchers are using this technology to research plants that have been engineered to be resistant to specific pests, including insects. South Africa already has limited GM cotton production. But it might be the target of GM “Bt” technology, a type of gene “harvesting” technique (from which the name “bio-weapon” was derived) that Monsanto is pushing.
The South African government doesn’t share the same mind-set as Monsanto. It has banned the use of GM crops in the country in hopes of keeping other nations from developing a biotech factory like Monsanto’s. But any resistance from South Africa to GMOs has apparently created its own biotech crisis.
South African scientists cannot legally use gene-grabbing technologies for GM purposes, so they have adopted a “what-if” approach. Instead of genetically engineering plants to be resistant to insects, they’re taking the techniques to heart and extracting some of the insects themselves.
The reason: “Burmese pythons and other pythons breeding with African wild animals have become a threat to humans, because their offspring can prey on and eat people and domesticated animals.”
Be mindful, travelers. These critters are huge.
In 2016, the government introduced a two-year moratorium on commercial growing of Bt cotton, along with restricting imports of cotton seed to domestic producers who produce pesticides. Just two years ago, South Africa was the world’s leading producer of GM cotton. The country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development reports some 10,000 acres are being set aside for a trial of Bt cotton (with no concerns about pests at the moment) and a proposed department of agriculture committee is investigating non-GM alternatives to Bt.
So the country’s scientists are delaying, and they say it’s their only option. The rest of the world, including the European Union, has a long history of pursuing GMO research, and South Africa officials, like so many, want to avoid that. The two key countries for GM-related biotech research in South Africa are Monsanto and chemical giant BASF, both of which have deep-pocketed resources in their place.
But the South African government refuses to surrender to Monsanto or BASF. To the contrary, President Ramaphosa is all for it, calling the moratorium on Bt cotton “the best measure” to take.
In mid-May, South African scientists who oppose the “bio-weapon” were honored by Queen Elizabeth II. Why she did so isn’t explained, but some South African scientists suggest that the honor was meant to show the way for other countries to dismiss GMO research, since President Ramaphosa is a well-connected member of that delegation.
So, the U.S. administration, which continues to allow Genetically Modified Organisms into the country, must come to terms with the dangerous nature of what we’re willing to allow here, and please move on and honor what we’re now telling all the world to do.
Seth Borenstein is on assignment in Africa. Follow him on Twitter: @sborenstein