29 January 2004

Dear friends and colleagues,


Following from our last mail-out on Monsanto’s attempt to obtain approval for importing GM wheat into South Africa, a more detailed report is attached below for your information. The exposure by the African Centre for Biosafety based in South Africa has generated widespread concern and media attention in the country.

With best wishes,

Lim Li Lin and Chee Yoke Heong

Third World Network

121-S Jalan Utama

10450 Penang




REF: Doc.TWN/Biosafety/2004/J



On the 19th January 2004, Monsanto SA (Pty) (“Monsanto) Ltd stunned South Africans when it announced that it was seeking a food and feed safety clearance for its genetically modified (GM) Roundup Ready wheat to expedite future imports. This application must be seen against the backdrop to the fact that GM wheat is not grown commercially in any part of the world and is years away from regulatory approval in Canada and the United States of America (US) where research and experiments are still continuing and no approval has yet been granted.

Once Monsanto obtains such approval, the legislative weakness in the South African biosafety law expressly excludes future importers of Roundup Ready wheat from the need to obtain import permits.i[1] Biosafety oversight will in that event, effectively cease to exist. Such future importers of the Roundup Ready wheat would then have carte blanche to import the Roundup Ready wheat into South Africa, and thereby not having to comply with the biosafety oversight procedures in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (Biosafety Protocol). 

Crucially, approval from the South African authorities will provide Monsanto with an enormous political coup to convince other African countries that its Roundup Ready GM wheat is “safe”. It will also go a long way, towards laying the groundwork, for control over the very lucrative wheat market in Africa.

In this context it is worth noting that Africa imports approximately 30 million tons of wheat per year.  The US government has targeted Africa as a major market for its wheat, especially since competition from the European Union (EU) and Russia is not as fierce owing to dwindling wheat exports from these countries. The US expects its exports to climb to 30 million tons during 2004, an 8-year high, and “sales to Africa will be a major reason.”ii[2]

Monsanto’s Difficulties with obtaining approval in Canada and the US

Monsanto Canada and Monsanto Corporate have applied for regulatory approval for its Roundup Ready GM wheat in both the USA and Canada. However, to date, neither the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, nor Health Canada, have granted approvals for general cultivation and human safety respectively. Monsanto Canada’s failure to obtain such approval is partly due to the groundswell of resistance from farmers and farmer organisations in Canada. Two years ago, the organic farmers of Saskatchewan filed a class action lawsuit to stop Roundup Ready wheat.iii[3] On 27th May 2003, the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB), a farmer-controlled grain marketing agency called on Monsanto Canada to withdraw its environmental safety assessment. Recently, Agriculture Canada announced that it was abandoning its long running project involving GM wheat it had been developing in partnership with Monsanto. Jim Bole from the government department of Agriculture Canada said that this decision reflected the concerns of Canada’s wheat customers.

In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is still in the throes of conducting a voluntary safety review of Monsanto Corporation’s Roundup Ready wheat for human and animal consumption. Monsanto Corporation is still awaiting approval from the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.) The FDA, USDA and EPA share regulatory oversight for GM crops in the US where there is no overarching comprehensive biosafety legislation.

GM wheat has also encountered massive technical problems with regard to the genetic transformation of wheat. The genome of wheat is 10-20 times larger than that of cotton or rice making it much more difficult to genetically modify in a reliable manneriv[4], and transgene silencing, instability and rearrangements are common problems with GM wheat.v[5] vi[6] vii[7]Transgene silencing, where the activity of the gene is reduced or abolished is a particular problem with multiple copes of genes. Silencing in wheat may be progressive over several generations and arises both from methylation of the genes so they are not transcribed and at the post-transcriptional stage. Not all transgenes transferred in one event are affected in the same way (one may be silenced while another may be expressed) and environmental changes may trigger silencing. This means that there can be many unintended and unpredictable effects, both for the environment, and human and animal health.

The type of promoter used also influences transgene silencing. The cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) 35S promoter is particularly vulnerable to transgene silencing effects in wheat.viii[8] The recombination ‘hotspot’-a site prone to break and rejoin-associated with the CaMV promoter also suggests that transgene constructs with the promoter may be structurally unstable and prone to horizontal gene transfer and recombination, with all the attendant risks.ix[9]

Paying Lip Service to Biosafety

The central question that the South African government must answer, is what data exactly, will it use to consider, assess and evaluate Monsanto’s application, particularly since the field trials and safety evaluations are still taking place in the US and Canada.

Why is it that Monsanto is so confident so as to seek a food and feed safety clearance from the South African government? South Africa’s bias in favour of GMOs is well documented. Its biosafety laws pays lip service to the notion public biosafety concerns. It has long since been described by environmental and development lawyers as showing “a cynical disregard for contemporary international and national environmental principles, as well as for the development imperatives of South Africa”x[10].

Monsanto’s application also has implications for the integrity of the Biosafety Protocol. The First Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol will take place in Malaysia from 23rd to 27th February, a momentous event in global genetic engineering regulation since the Protocol entered into force only on 11th September 2003.

South Africa is a Party to the Biosafety Protocol but it has not yet revised its GMO Act, to give effect to the Biosafety Protocol. South Africa’s Constitution does, however, make it clear that the Biosafety Protocol is binding on South Africa.

However, the safety approval sought by Monsanto is in respect of non-existent GM wheat, whereas the Biosafety Protocol applies to real situations of cross border trade in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and not to speculative trade in respect of non existent GMOs. An early decision now in favour of the import of Monsanto’s GM wheat, relieves South Africa of the obligation later, to abide by the regulatory requirements of the Biosafety Protocol, including its critically important Precautionary Principle.

Such a pre-emptive move by Monsanto is clearly calculated to undermine the spirit, intention, principles and objectives of the Biosafety Protocol.  

Pre-emptive Bid For Control Over Lucrative African Wheat Market

Monsanto Corporation needs the lucrative African wheat market. Its loss widened to $97 million it its fiscal first quarter in 2003, and this excludes its $69 million goodwill write off related to its global wheat business.xi[11] North Africa imports approximately 18 million tons of wheat per year, and Sub-Saharan Africa approximately 10 million tons.  South Africa itself is a net wheat importer, having imported 1.2 million tons of wheat during 2003, owing to the worst crop in a decade.xii[12]

The provision of wheat as food aid is also an important factor for the push for the African wheat market. For instance, Ethiopia, the centre of diversity of wheat, imported 600, 000 of wheat last year as food aid from the US and EU.xiii[13]

Safety clearance will greatly assist Monsanto to convince key African importers who have already voiced concern over GM wheat, to accept it as being safe. Consider for example the following statements:

“On January 5, Algeria, which imports large amounts of durum wheat from the United States, announced that it would not import any genetically modified wheat. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are taking a similar tack with respect to wheat” xiv[14]

“If you have just one grain in a thousand which is genetically modified, the consumer is going to refuse it.”xv[15]

Thus, it is evident from the above that the granting of the application sought by Monsanto will greatly assist it to capture the African wheat market. South Africa is hence, the entry point for the export of GE wheat into the rest of Africa that will be forced to succumb in a domino effect.

For more information, please contact:

Mariam Mayet

African Centre for Biosafety

i[1] The wording of section 2(2) of the Regulations to the Genetically Modified Organisms Act, No. 15 of 1997 is peremptory, and read together with section 2(1), and Table 3 of the Annex, provides as follows “ ...a permit ..shall not be required [for the import, export, development, production, use, release or distribution of any GMO in the Republic of South Africa]...for those organisms that have been cleared for food and feed” .

ii[2] Grain: World Markets and Trade, December 2003,

iii[3] For further information, see http://

iv[4] Patnaik, D. & Khurana, P. (2001) Wheat biotechnology: a mini review. EJB Electronic Journal of Biotechnology 4(2): 1-29. Available at

v[5] Patnaik, D. & Khurana, P. (2001) Wheat biotechnology: a mini review. EJB Electronic Journal of Biotechnology 4(2): 1-29. Available at

vi[6] Repellin, A., Baga et al (2001) Genetic Enrichment of cereal crops via alien gene transfer: New challenges. Plant Cell, Tissue and Organic Culture 64: 159-183.

vii[7] Srivasatava, V. et al (1999) Single copy transgenic wheat generated through the resolution of complex integration patterns. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA 96:11117-11121.

viii[8] Chen, W.P. et al (1999) Development of wheat scab symptoms is delayed in transgenic wheat that constitutively expresses a thaumatin-like protein gene. Theoretical and Applied Genetics 99: 755-760.

ix[9] Ho, W.M., Ryan, A. & Cummins, J. (1999) Cauliflower mosaic viral promoter-A recipe for disaster? Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 11:194-197. Ho, W.M., Ryan, A. & Cummins, J (1999) Hazards of transgene plants with the cauliflower mosaic viral promoter Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 12:6-11.

x[10] Biowatch condemns South Africa’s genetic engineering laws, March 10, 2000


xii[12] World Wheat Situation and Outlook

xiii[13] World Wheat Situation and Outlook

xiv[14] Cropchoice News,, 2 February 2001.

xv[15] Egyptian Trade, Reuters, 9 February 2002.