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Genetically Modified Organisms

How can we feed more than 7 billion people if we don’t use genetically modified food?1

It’s a good question, particularly in famine-drenched Africa, but the debate still rages with as many pros as there are cons. Fact is, genetically modified foods are increasingly finding their way into our diets.

The Genetically Modified Organisms Act 19972 provides measures, protections, requirements and procedures to promote the responsible development, production, use and application of genetically modified organisms. The Act is administered by the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

The Act gives the Minister powers to make an extensive array of regulations, including to provide that a contravention of any is an offence.3 It also has one of those omnibus provisions stipulating that any person who fails to comply with the Act, or any condition, restriction, prohibition, reservation or directive imposed or issued in terms of the Act commits an offence.4 What follows in Section B is a summation of the more relevant, generally speaking, provisions; those in section A are specified offences.

A. The Council and Inspectorate

The Act establishes an Executive Council, its Registrar, an Advisory Committee, the Biosafety Clearing House,5 and inspectors. As to be expected, the inspectors have wide powers of interrogation, inspection, seizure, disposal and repatriation, and the making of orders and giving directives.

  1. Any person who obstructs or hinders any inspector in the exercise of his powers or the performance of duties commits an offence.6

  2. If required in terms of the Act, it is an offence to:7
    • refuse or fail to furnish information;
    • refuse or fail to give an explanation;
    • fail to reply (to a question) to the best of your knowledge;
    • furnish information, or an explanation, or a reply which is false or misleading.
  3. It is an offence falsely to pretend to be an inspector or any other officer appointed in terms of the Act.8

  4. No person may disclose any information acquired by him through the exercise of his powers or the performance of his duties.9 10

B. Permits

The Act provides that the Minister, in addition to the powers to make an extensive range of regulations, can specifically prohibit any activity involving genetically modified organisms. An ‘activity’ includes (and is not limited to) importation, exportation, transit, development, production, release, distribution, use, storage and application.11

Basically, no one may conduct any activity involving genetically modified organisms except in terms of a permit authorised by the Council and issued by the Registrar, and then in accordance with any conditions, limitations, and the like. It is an offence to contravene this prohibition, or any of the conditions and limitations.12

C. Determination of risks and liability

  1. If you conduct any activity with a genetically modified organism (that is, you are a ‘user’), you are obliged to ensure that appropriate measures are taken to avoid an adverse impact on the environment; and on human, and animal health. It is an offence to fail to do so.13

  2. If there is any damage caused, the user in question must immediately inform the Registrar. Not to do so is an offence.14

  1. Posted on an on-line debate about Genetically Modified foods – https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/food-fight

  2. As amended; the latest amendment was effected by Act 23 of 2006. 

  3. Which the Minister has done. It is beyond the scope of this work to review the Regulations. See, however, Government Notice R120 of 26 February 2010, Government Gazette 32966. 

  4. Section 21(1)a. 

  5. An information-sharing exchange mechanism established by international protocol. 

  6. Section 21(1)(b). 

  7. Section 21(1)(c). 

  8. Section 21(1)(d). 

  9. This provision does not have specific criminality. It is likely an offence under the omnibus clause. 

  10. Section 21(1)(a) read with section 18(1). 

  11. Section 21(1)(a) read with section 14. 

  12. Section 21(1)(a) read with section 14 and section 5(2)(b). 

  13. Section 21(1)(1) read with section 17(1) and section 17(1A). 

  14. Section 21(1)(1) read with Section 17(1) and section 17(1A).