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Cablegate: South Africa, Biosafety Update and State Senior

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E.O. 12958: N/A



1. (SBU) Summary. During a June 8-15 visit to South Africa,
State Department Special Advisor for Biotechnology Madelyn
Spirnak met with government officials, researchers, private
sector representatives and officials from the New Economic
Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) to discuss
agricultural biotechnology and biosafety issues. Ms.
Spirnak also participated in a workshop on Biotechnology and
Food Aid, where participants from African governments
highlighted needs for assistance in capacity building.
South African government officials voiced an interest in
becoming more assertive within Africa on biosafety issues;
Agriculture Department officials noted capacity challenges
in implementing GMO regulations; and researchers at the
parastatal Agricultural Research Council reported on
developments in commercializing local GMO research. NEPAD
representatives described a new biotech advisory panel and
other biotech initiatives. Private sector representatives
noted how the proportion of transgenic crops in South Africa
is steadily increasing. End summary.

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Science & Technology, Environment and Health Departments
--------------------------------------------- -----------

2. (SBU) During a June 8 discussion with visiting State
Department Senior Advisor for Agricultural Biotechnology
Madelyn Spirnak, South African government (SAG) policymakers
from several government departments provided feedback on
recent COP/MOP meetings of the Cartagena Protocol on
Biosafety held in Montreal. They noted that South Africa's
position was out of sync with much of the rest of the
"Africa group" and that in meetings of the Africa group,
South Africa was the only country to provide any push-back
to the dominating influence of the Chairperson, Ethiopia's
Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher. They noted that while
African country representatives espoused different
viewpoints in bilateral conversations, none but the South
Africans would take Dr. Tewolde on in group settings. And
when a few African delegates strayed from Tewolde's script
for Africa in individual statements made during the
meetings, he disciplined them.

3. (SBU) Department of Science & Technology's Director for
Biotechnology, Ben Durham, offered his personal view that
South Africa needs to be even more assertive, given the
country's position on and support for biotechnology. Newly-
appointed Director for Biosafety of the Department of
Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), Wadzi Mandivenyi,
reported that the South African delegation leader, DEAT
Deputy Director General Fundisile Mketeni, told her that he
wants the South African government to strategize better and
identify ways to counter the influence of Dr. Tewolde.
(Note: Mandivenyi a Zimbabwe-born scientist who worked with
biotechnology stakeholder organization AfricaBio prior to
assuming the new position at DEAT, is a welcome choice; as
Ref A noted, some government sources were concerned that
DEAT would select a Biosafety Director with anti-GMO
leanings. End note.)

4. (SBU) According to the SAG officials, during the COP-MOP,
South Africa offered to support and host a regional
technical working group on liability and redress issues.
South Africa also hopes to engage more proactively with
individual countries in the region and in regional contexts
such as NEPAD's southern region working group, to discuss
biotechnology and biosafety issues in a more constructive
and practical way, and thereby gain some allies for the SAG

Workshop on Biotechnology and Food Aid

5. (U) Spirnak attended the final sessions of the
USAID/State Department sponsored workshop for African
Policymakers on Biotechnology and Food Aid on June 10.
During the closing discussion among participants, the
facilitator requested that each country select a
spokesperson who could provide input for the workshop report
on biotechnology areas in which his/her country had
particular needs. Almost without exception, participants
called for assistance in developing a policy framework,
capacity building for developing the framework as well as in
biotech research, and public outreach/awareness. Spirnak
gave brief closing remarks in which she summarized the
apparent consensus on needs of African countries but
stressed the importance of having in place a system which
would allow food aid to be received from the United States
should it be needed and desired.

Visit to Agricultural Research Council

6. (U) On June 13, Spirnak visited Dr. Kobie de Ronde and
her staff at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and was
briefed on the status of their USAID-funded transgenic
potato project in cooperation with Michigan State
University. The project is in the third year of contained
field trials with a projected commercialization time-frame
of 2007. The potato contains a Syngenta-developed gene in
a South African cultivar engineered to resist the tuber
moth, which is particularly important for subsistence
farmers storing their potatoes after harvest. Dr. de Ronde
explained that before petitioning for commercialization, a
"socio-economic impact" questionnaire would be completed in
order to gain the views of farmers and their communities
about the use of the genetically-engineered potato. The
contained trials are taking place in six regions,
representing different ecological areas of South Africa.
Five of the six planting trials are completed. Storage
trials so far show 100 percent control of the moth and no
damage to non-transgenic lines.

7. (U) ARC is also working on a drought-resistant soybean,
which is locally-produced with a gene licensed from Belgium.
The earliest that the soybean could be commercialized would
be 2008. The group is also working on: a virus-resistant
ornamental plant, which has shown some success; a virus
resistant sweet potato that has not been successful due to
weevil problems; and virus resistant tomatoes. ARC is a
UNESCO biotechnology training center for Africa. It also is
working on gene mining projects on cow peas, sorghum and
potatoes to develop locally genes that will help resource-
poor farmers.

8. (SBU) During Spirnak's June 8 meeting with Department of
Science & Technology's Ben Durham, he advised that he (and
presumably his Department) would be pushing for insertion of
terminator genes in South Africa-engineered traits. He
asserted that South Africa's economy should benefit
economically from the fruits of its research. Spirnak asked
Dr. de Ronde (without reference to Durham) if there was any
thought of insertion of terminator genes into ARC's
transgenic plants. She said that the idea had come up in
recent interagency meetings but she did not think that it
would come to anything.

Agriculture Department's GMO Officials

9. (SBU) Spirnak and AgCouns Reynolds visited Julian Jaftha,
Senior Manager, Genetic Resources, and Michelle Vosges, GMO
Registrar on June 13 and had a good discussion. They had
not been in Montreal but were following the COP-MOP II
issues. Julian said the South African delegation's final
report has not been completed, but he understands that the
technical working group on liability and redress did not
make much progress and that "may contain" will be with us
for some time to come. Michelle confirmed that she has only
3 staff to support her work which includes administering the
GMO Act, the Plant Breeders Right Act, and setting up and
maintaining a joint website, a clearing house for
information. On the positive side, her superiors have
approved 5 additional positions and have funded two of those
positions which she plans to advertise soon. (Note: we
informed both Pioneer and Monsanto the following day about
the two new positions and they immediately saw the benefits
from encouraging qualified applicants to apply. End Note)

10. (SBU) Jaftha noted that the Amended GMO Act, to comply
with the Cartegena Protocol, has been approved by the
Cabinet and is now with the State Law Advisors prior to
making its way to Parliament for final passage. He said his
biggest challenges are interdepartmental coordination and
the need for increased capacity of decision makers,
particularly on the advisory committee which is appointed by
the Minister of Agriculture. He noted that there is little
that the USG can do about these problems in a direct way,
because there is now a high level of engagement from anti-
GMO lobbyists and any hint of U.S. involvement fuels the
outcry against the initiative.

11. (SBU) In response to a question about the status of
applications for deregulation of stacked events, Jaftha said
the Executive Council would be discussing this matter next
week. He asked what additional information is required by
U.S. regulators when reviewing an application for stacked
events when each of the events has already been approved
separately. Spirnak and Reynolds have received a brief
summary of what is required from Washington agencies and
have already forwarded this to the GMO Registrar's office.
Comment: We believe that the GMO Registrar's office does not
have a problem with the stacked event applications but that
they need further information to share with the Department
of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) which has
reportedly held back its concurrence seeking further
information. End comment.

NEPAD S&T Advisor and Biosciences Coordinator

12. (SBU) Spirnak and AgCouns met with Dr. John Mugabe,
NEPAD's Science & Technology advisor, and Prof. Aggrey
Ambali, his biotech coordinator, during which Mugabe
discussed NEPAD's three major biotech initiatives. First,
Mugabe reported that he was about to issue a press release
announcing the fifteen members of a NEPAD-African Union
biotech advisory panel. In response to Spirnak's request
for the identities of the panel, he mentioned in particular,
Egypt's Ismael Serag Eldin, Ethiopia's Tewolde Berhan Gebre
Egziabher, Calestous Juma of Harvard, along with
representatives from other African countries. Mugabe noted
that panel members were chosen to represent a diverse
scientific community, some of whom had no biotech
experience. Their focus would be managing transboundary
risks of LMO's, while maximizing benefits. Questioned about
the inclusion of Tewolde and the possibility of his
overpowering those with no biotech experience, Mugabe said
that he doubted that Tewolde would be able to assert his
will because of the high caliber of others on the panel.
Mugabe said the panel would be assisted by an expert group
which would provide reports to them on key issues. The
panel is expected to have an eighteen-month life. It will
begin with a meeting in August 2005 in South Africa and is
to report its findings at the July 2006 AU Summit in Addis
Ababa. In advance of that Summit, African agriculture,
trade, and environment ministers would be invited to an
inter-ministerial meeting in May to hear preliminary
findings of the panel. He expected that panel meetings in
advance of the Summit would take place primarily in South
Africa. Asked if the panel would endorse the AU Model
Biosafety law, Mugabe responded that there would be no model
law for Africa. It was up to each country to make its own
legislative decisions, but the advisory panel would try to
provide un-biased, scientific information to help countries'

13. (SBU) The second NEPAD biotech initiative involves
networking of four African biosciences Hubs, taking
advantage of existing regional biotech leaders: Senegal,
Egypt, South Africa and Kenya. Steering committees for
these hubs also would focus on biosafety/transboundary
issues. The third initiative involves building public
awareness and it will be launched with the assistance of the
International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which
already has conducted seminars in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

14. (SBU) Spirnak informed Mugabe that she was headed to the
West African Biotechnology Ministerial in Bamako and asked
if he or his representative would attend. Mugabe responded
that he had made a "conscious decision" not to attend based
on last year's Ministerial in Burkina Faso. He explained
that he felt that it was improper for Ministers to be asked
to approve papers that had been written by USAID
contractors. He noted that several ministers were quite
exercised about this, including the Nigerians "who are still
talking about it."

Meetings with private sector biotech/seed companies
--------------------------------------------- ------

15. (SBU) Spirnak and Ag Counselor met on June 14 with
leading American seed and grain trading companies present in
the Johannesburg area. Monsanto explained that more than 90
percent of the cotton harvested in South Africa is
transgenic, about 50 percent of the soybeans are transgenic,
and about 20 percent of the corn is transgenic. Although
new approvals are slow in coming, biotech seed sales in
South Africa have been good, and these percentages are
expected to continue to rise over time. Monsanto reported
that they applied for a stacked event in late 2001 (Bollgard
with round-up ready cotton) and that they believe all of the
members of the GMO Executive Council except DEAT have
approved it for commercial use. Monsanto also applied for a
stacked event in corn (810 with NK603) about six months ago,
and no decision has been made by the GMO Executive Council.

16. (SBU) Cargill's Managing Director for South Africa
explained that their primary goal is to meet the demands of
all customers with the appropriate products. They are busy
sourcing many non-GMO truckloads of corn for Zimbabwe. This
is not difficult because many cooperatives in northern South
Africa are oriented to exports to Zimbabwe and only carry
non-GMO maize in their silos. However, he noted that it has
become very difficult to guarantee non-GMO corn from South
Africa in the case of large ocean vessels. The risk of
rejection at discharge is getting higher each year. In his
opinion, once the transgenic content in South African corn
reaches thirty to forty percent, perhaps as early as next
season, then the quote Game is Over unquote. There will no
longer be a capability to segregate and certify that large
shipments of South African corn have no transgenic content.

17. (U) Spirnak also met with journalists from South African
Broadcasting Corporation, Farmers' Weekly and vernacular
Landbou (Post will forward any articles resulting from the
meeting) and with a leading food safety and nutrition
researcher, Dr. Lisa Korsten at the University of Pretoria.

18. Ms. Spirnak has approved this cable.


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