NO ADVANTAGE: Potatoes will stay free of genetic modification in South Africa, ending a 12-year battle.

There will be no genetically modified (GM) potatoes grown commercially in South Africa, Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana has ruled, ending a 12-year battle to get GM spuds on the shelves.

Zokwana said the reasons were that GM potatoes, engineered to produce a toxin that kills the potato tuber moth, would not yield any advantage in terms of managing pests, while it would place a burden on potato farmers, particularly small-scale producers, who would be obliged to keep these potatoes separate from conventional potatoes.

The GM potato – “SpuntaG2” – was funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in collaboration with the University of Michigan and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC).

The first field trials in South Africa began 12 years ago. ARC applied to be allowed to release the GM potato commercially, but in 2009 the application was turned down by the Executive Council, the intergovernmental controlling body under the GMO Act. The body listed several biosafety, health and socio-economic concerns.

ARC appealed against the decision, and Zokwana turned down the appeal.

While the move has been welcomed by the anti-GM lobby, questions have been raised as to government double standards about GM crops. GM maize, cotton and soybean is grown commercially, and the same gene producing a bactericidal protein has been used in these crops. And the government has not been concerned about keeping GM maize, soya or cotton separate from non-GM-GM crops, as it has with GM potatoes.

Mariam Mayet, head of anti-GM group African Centre for Biosafety, said yesterday: “We are very happy that the GM potato has been turned down, as we and the public have been fighting this for years. We hope it sets a new precedent for biosafety, and that we are entering a new era for biosafety rules.”

Mayet said studies had found that the GM potato would have no benefit either to large- or small-scale farmers and that controlling tuber moth was not a high priority.

“But it does raise questions about the South African regulatory regime. They don’t apply the same standards for all crops. Why do they allow this in maize?

“Everybody that writes to us to say it’s great about the GM potato decision, says: ‘But what about maize and soya? Why does government allow them?’.

“Government appears to have double standards in the regulatory system. They didn’t mind the issue of having to keep GM and non-GM maize separate for instance.”

Zokwana’s spokeswoman, Bomikazi Molapo, said yesterday each GM application was treated separately on a case-by-case approach.

“Thus the decision on the GM potato did not set any particular precedent for current or future GM crops,” she said.