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Interview with Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss
of Biowatch South Africa

GE Crops, Trade Liberalization
and Food Sovereignty in Southern Africa

Johannesburg, South Africa

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss is a research coordinator working for Biowatch South Africa, a local NGO working on biodiversity issues. It was established in 1997. Their office is in Cape Town, South Africa. This interview was conducted August 31, 2002 by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine during the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.

  • To see our full series of interviews and articles from the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 26 - September 4, 2002 - click here.

Biowatch / Biodiversity

In Motion Magazine: What does Biowatch do?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: We work on biodiversity issues, mainly looking at the implementation of the CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity). It was formed because there was no other organization that was monitoring the implementation. For the last three years, since we realized that genetically-engineered (GE) crops have been introduced in the country, we have been working on that quite extensively.

In Motion Magazine: How did you realize that GE crops had been introduced?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: We found out that the South African government approved permits for GE crops. The first strain was planted in '97.

In Motion Magazine: These weren't just test crops? They are commercial crops?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: Yes. We don't know exactly where – because in terms of the law they do not have to tell you exactly where -- but they are grown in Mpamalanga, Northern Province, and KwaZulu Natal.

The first crops they approved were: Bt cotton, Bt maize, and Roundup Ready cotton. Roundup Ready soya has also been approved commercially. As soon as it's been approved the Department of Agriculture doesn't really have the information anymore, so the only way to get information is to ask the companies how much they are growing, where it's grown, and that sort of thing.

In Motion Magazine: Do they tell you?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: The give some information, but very general information. But it's difficult to piece the information together.

In Motion Magazine: What are the goals of Biowatch?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: The overarching goal is for our country and countries in general to uphold this global commitment, global treaties like the CBD. Also, we are very concerned about the privatization of genetic resources.

We do a lot of awareness raising and research around those issues and what the impact will be on local communities, food security. We do policy work, research, awareness raising.

Role at the Summit

In Motion Magazine: What role are you playing here at the summit?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: Our biggest role, because we are South African-based, has been to coordinate, facilitate people working on the same issues who were coming from around the world. We provided office space that people could use. We coordinated activities. That was quite a big function - to create the space for activists who work on the issues. Also we had the Biopiracy Summit, a two-day biopiracy meeting just before the official summit started which was awareness raising on those issues, some capacity building, some public debate. I think it raised the profile of the issue quite a lot in South Africa.

In Motion Magazine: Who were some of the people that attended that?

Vandana Shiva
Vandana Shiva (author of "Biopiracy - the Plunder of Nature and Knowledge") in Johannesburg. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: People from around the world that work on biopiracy issues from India (click 1, click 2 to read interviews with Vandana Shiva), from the Third World Network, South East Asia Research Community Education, Ethiopia (click to read interview with Dr. Tewolde) some Latin American organizations -- GRAIN (click to read interview with Silvia Rodriguez of GRAIN). And the San, or Bushmen, -- they sent people.

And of course AfricaBio came and Monsanto came.

In Motion Magazine: They did?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: The international seed industry came, yes. They wouldn't let us into their meeting but they came to our meeting.

The South African Government

In Motion Magazine: What is the position of the South African government on genetic engineering?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: From our side they are very pro. They have designed a law that is written for industry. It negates basic environmental principles. There's a lot of problems with the law. They have put a system in place that expedites granting of permits for industry. They work very closely with industry.

Last year, they put in place a biotech strategy granting 180 million rand to the development of biotech -- which is really genetic engineering -- third generation biotech.

And last year they launched an awareness-raising program, putting huge funding into promoting GE.

If you look at those pamphlets, they could have been written by industry. They don't mention any of the concerns, not one of the concerns which the international community recognizes. We have a biosafety protocol because there are real risks.

I see our government as very pro and find it very difficult to engage with them on the issue. We have several times tried to engage with them and it's very difficult.

Access to risk assessments

In Motion Magazine: They just say no?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: They say you are emotional. On the Act, for instance, we invited a very good environmental lawyer to review the Act. We had two workshops with environmental and human rights lawyers in the country and they all came up and said that it is a very bad Act. They criticized it heavily.

Anyway, we provided the Department of Agriculture -- which is responsible for the Act -- with these reports and their response is they never engage. They just say the Act is fine. There is no problem. It's a great Act. They wouldn't engage, even though we did a professional job of looking at it critically.

Also, we have engaged with Parliament. We've got parliamentary committees who are supposed to be the interface between people and the government. We have often made submissions to parliamentarians, but so far they have not responded or taken it up.

In Motion Magazine: Which committees?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: The Committee on Environment and the Committee on Agriculture.

In terms of the Department of Agriculture, we have asked for access to information. We want to know where the field trials are. The main thing we want is to find out what risk assessments they've done. They refuse to give us that information. They refuse to give us any. The only information is what permits they've granted, and they would give us what areas in which field trials are happening. But we can't get any more information.

GE maize for human consumption

In Motion Magazine: What percentage of crops in South Africa are GE?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: Cotton is about 60%. Maize didn't take off so well because there is no export market for it. I think the yellow maize is about 6%.

And the white maize they have now planted for human consumption. It's just been harvested. It's going to come on the shelves soon. South Africa is the first country in the world that is growing it. It's a staple food here and it's not labeled. There's no labeling legislation.

In Motion Magazine: There's no uproar?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: We've written about it a lot. It's been in the newspapers, but people don't react.

If we put in the media that it's this brand and that brand is GE, then maybe people will respond. But so far there's been no response about it.

Commercial corporate farming

In Motion Magazine: Is there a relationship between who owns the land and who is farming GMOs?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: GE has been introduced in South Africa first precisely because it's commercial farming. You have a good infrastructure. You have a very established seed industry, a commercial seed industry. It was very easy to introduce it. Those farmers (growing GE crops) were already in the commercial farming system so it was just the next step. If it wasn't for the resistance in Europe it probably would have been even more successful.

Agriculture was completely de-regulated immediately after the ANC (African National Congress) came into power, though it started before that. They thought that they could compete in the open market, but it's a struggle for farmers.

In terms of commercial farmers, they are also struggling, beginning to have difficulties. They were protected but all those protection mechanisms have been taken away. They are competing on the open market.

In Motion Magazine: And they are losing out to corporate farming?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: Yes. I think they are. They are struggling.

In Motion Magazine: Who is running these big farms?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: Big companies like Anglo-American Farms. And in terms of GE, Monsanto is the main company operating in South Africa. Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred and Pannar are the three main seed companies.

Opposition to Genetically Modified Organisms

  • Lack of transparency

In Motion Magazine: Why are you opposed to GE?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: I think we have a big problem with the way it's being introduced in South Africa. It was introduced in '97, and we only got the law in '99, for instance. The regulatory system is not adequate.

There's been an incredible lack of transparency, little engagement with the public. No opportunity to decide whether we actually want it or not. I think in terms of democratic principles we have a problem with the way it's being introduced. That's the one thing.

Another is the usual problem in terms of the unknown risks, environmental risks and socio-economic risks. We can't get access to the risk assessments that have been done prior to commercial releases. We aren't sure about the risks it represents and whether it is actually monitored.

  • Corporate control

Also, there's the whole thing of corporate control. South Africa is not a country like Ethiopia, for instance, where most of the farmers are small-scale, where they save seeds from year to year. Here agriculture is much more industrialized so commercial farmers buy seed from year to year anyway and it's a huge problem if companies, like what Monsanto is doing in South Africa, are buying up the seed companies. They've already bought up the main wheat seed company. They own 52 percent of the maize market. And it amazes me that the government is not concerned about that. Even though our food system here is more commercial than the rest of Africa and we are less dependent on small-scale farming, I think there's a real fear of a corporate monopoly by one big multinational company.

  • No labeling

And lastly, the fact that there is no control, no labeling. I don't have a choice. I go and buy maize, I don't know. If I buy soyamilk for my child, I don't know if it's GE or not. One wants to have those kind of choices.

  • Removes the organic option

And we do have small-scale farmers, farmers that are wanting to go organic, to be more sustainable. It takes those options away from them, from moving into a more sustainable direction with our agriculture.

Those are some of the big reasons.

In Motion Magazine: Do you see anything coming out of the fact that all the countries around you are taking positions against GE? Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia.

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: It's very heartening that they do. It is motivated by protecting their own genetic resources and markets. The problem that I have with our government's position is that it doesn't take into account its neighbors and the impact that GE will have on their rural economies.

It will be difficult in the future. I think that the stand they (southern African countries) are taking at the moment is very courageous. I think it's farsighted of them to look into the future and to resist compromising the future sustainability of their markets and of their own local crops.

Food sovereignty

In Motion Magazine: So the government has this unfortunate position, do you think that effects the food sovereignty of South Africa itself?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: Yes, I think it does though I don't think they realize it already is happening. The corporate takeover is happening. Some of the things that we are already seeing in the country is butter from Ireland and New Zealand; meat, though we have a big meat industry, meat from Australia. That sort of opening of the market, deregulation, taking all protection away. That's one thing.

And the milk industry is collapsing. Parmalat (an Italy-based dairy corporation) and companies like that are coming and buying all the small dairies up and bringing down the prices. They cut the profit margin of the farmers until they stop dairy farming. It's an industry in crisis.

In Motion Magazine: Is that one of the reasons small farmers are collapsing?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: It is one of the reasons. Their inputs stay high and they get very low prices because of cheap imports from developed countries where farmers are subsidized. That does affect your food sovereignty. You don't have local control over your food. I think that is very important.

In Motion Magazine: How would you define food sovereignty?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: I would define it as local control. Control over your own markets, your own production. Local economies.

In Motion Magazine: And that is in contrast to a globalized way of running things?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: I think so, If you have lots of small businesses, lots of smallish farms, and produce as much as possible, locally, you have local markets for your products and a lot of diversity and that makes for a very robust agricultural system. Something that can withstand the fluctuations of international markets. I think that is what we need to work towards more.

The Valley of a Thousand Hills.
The Valley of a Thousand Hills, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.

Declaration of the Valley of a Thousand Hills

In Motion Magazine: You signed the Declaration of the Valley of a Thousand Hills?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: Yes.

In Motion Magazine: Can you summarize that?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: Well, the main principle of the Valley of a Thousand Hills Declaration is community control -- local communities having the responsibility and the ability to exercise control over their local resources.

It focused on farmer's rights, the rights of local communities, the rights of farmers over their genetic resources, over their environment. Being at the same time responsible but also custodians of it. That is the main principle of it.

In Motion Magazine: What kind of organizing did it take to create that declaration?

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss: The Valley of 1000 Hills Declaration was developed in the same spirit as the African model law on community rights and was developed in March 2002 by 40 members of African civil society at the end of a workshop.

One merely has to make a considered effort, now, to make people aware that it exists, that it can be used as a guideline for national legislation in individual African countries.

Published in In Motion Magazine, June 8, 2003.
  • To see our full series of interviews and articles from the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 26 - September 4, 2002 - click here.