Following the promulgation of the Genetically Modified Organisms Act in 1997, numerous Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) applications have been approved in SA. As of 2007, GMOs commercially available in South Africa included insect resistant maize and cotton, herbicide tolerant cotton, maize and soybean, and herbicide tolerant and insect resistant cotton and maize, making up 62% of the total maize crop, 80% of the total soybean crop and 90% of the total cotton crop in South Africa comprised of GMOs.

The African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) concurs with the emerging groundswell of civil society and scientific opinion that GMOs pose a grave threat to human health, the environment and the establishment of an equitable global food system. Public interest groups such as the ACB have, over many years, attempted to engage with the government on the regulation of GMOs in South Africa, and to participate in GMO permitting processes.

While a valuable contribution to the biosafety debate has been made, these efforts have often been frustrated by a lack of transparency in the decision-making process, and in particular the lack of information made available to the public. The GMO Registrar has consistently insisted on interested and affected parties (I&APs) making formal applications for information under the Promotion of Access to Information Act2 (PAIA), and even then only a sanitized version is provided that has been expunged by the permit applicant of purportedly confidential business information (CBI) and intellectual property.

As a consequence, I&APs are unable to carry out independent evaluation or assessment of the potential risks associated with the transgenic organisms proposed for permitting. The 1997 GMO Act was amended in 2006,3 and new GMO Regulations took effect on 26 February 2010.

This paper seeks to provide an easy to read critique of the amended GMO regulatory framework, with particular focus given to whether the amended framework provides for a sufficiently robust biosafety framework in terms of decision making. Particular attention is paid to mandatory and discretionary powers and duties, public participation and access to information. Reference is made where appropriate to other developing legislation that has a bearing on these issues, as well as to recent developments relating to the issue of liability within the international legal framework governing GMOs.

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