18/04/2011 Throughout a cold day, in Marabastad Joyce Tsakane busy cooking mealies by running her business. Picture: Sarah Makoe

The government has confirmed that it has approved future imports of genetically modified “Agent Orange” mealies from the US and was satisfied the new mealies would not pose a threat to human health.

Responding to concerns raised by the African Centre for Biosafety, the Agriculture Department said on Sunday it would re-evaluate the risks if any evidence emerged that the modified mealies contained higher levels of pesticide residues.

The new mealies, designed by Dow AgroSciences, have been dubbed “Agent Orange” as they have been engineered to tolerate the pesticide 2,4-D – one of the main ingredients of the Agent Orange toxic chemicals sprayed over Vietnamese jungles in the 1960s by the US military.

The plants have been modified to tolerate the 2,4-D pesticide which kills broad-leafed weeds. This chemical mixture is also produced by the sister Dow chemicals group.

Agriculture Department spokesman Selby Bokaba confirmed that the government council set up to regulate genetically modified organisms had granted a commodity clearance permit to Dow AgroSciences last month following a safety review process.

He did not specify whether this review was based on an independent safety assessment in SA or on data submitted by the Dow group to US regulators.

Bokaba said that although no imports had occurred yet, SA had given approval for the modified mealies to be imported for use in human food and animals feed, but not for general planting.

One of the main concerns by the African Centre for Biosafety and other groups working on food safety and environment risks is that the modified crops would lead to the use of larger volumes of 2,4-D pesticides and a corresponding increase in pesticide residue levels on food crops.

Bokaba said that local food safety legislation provided for a maximum 2,4-D pesticide residue level of 0.5g/kg. This would apply to normal maize and the modified Dow maize.

“Should the current approved residue level be exceeded due to increased use of the herbicide on the GM maize, the risk associated with the use of 2,4-D on imported maize will be re-evaluated. Currently there is no scientific evidence that the current residue level will be exceeded and thus put the SA consumers at risk.” - The Mercury