Despite the best part of a decade of research and field trials, genetically modified sugar cane in South Africa remains a long way from commercial cultivation. Numerous research projects are currently underway at a number of publicly and privately funded research bodies, most of which are concentrating on increased sucrose and biomass content.

Late last year the Department of Science and Technology announced the creation of a strategic sugar research platform to be overseen by the PlantBio Trust, a branch of the Department of Trade and Industry that focuses on plant biotechnology. Internationally, both Brazil and Australia lead the way in GM sugar cane research, and both countries believe they can bring it to market commercially within the next 5 years. Under the guise of south-south co-operation, Brazil has been particularly active in extending its influence as the world’s largest sugarcane producer into the African continent.

Huge sugarcane for ethanol investment deals have been signed with Mozambique, while a steady succession of research partnerships have been undertaken between Brazilian and South African institutions. The biotech industry, either through direct research and acquisitions or indirectly via a number of lobby groups, has been very active in both GM sugarcane and sugarbeet. In 2009 GM sugarbeet adoption in the US and Canada occurred at a faster rate than for any previous GM crop. The Better Sugarcane Initiative (BSI), formed in 2005, is the ‘environmental round-table’ of the sugarcane world (and by definition industry).

Already active in South Africa, the BSI’s members include some of the world’s largest food, commodity, and oil companies. While their position on GM sugarcane remains publically neutral, the experience of other rountables, notably the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS), points to another potential industry conduit into the environmental policy discourse.

Finally, developments around transgenic sugarcane cannot be viewed in isolation from those around the global agrofuel drive. South Africa has had a national agrofuels strategy in place since 2007, with several massive projects already in operation around the country using conventional sugarcane. So far GM sugarcane has been kept off the agrofuel agenda, but there is no doubting the potential compatibility of the two, nor the political and economic clout of those who seek their union.

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