Sugarcane with altered sugar metabolism & new promotor elements (SARSI) / SARSI Objection To The Application By Sasri In Respect Of A Trial With Gm Sugarcane, To The National Department Of Agriculture, South Africa.

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Application by SASRI and Available Information

An application has been made by the South African Sugarcane Research Institute (SASRI) to conduct a trial with genetically modified sugarcane (The North Coast Courier May 13 2005).

According to the public notice, several independent modifications, falling into two categories, are being investigated:

  1. To determine sucrose yields in mature plants: endogenous enzymes (phosphofructokinase, aldolase, fructose 2,6-bisphosphate) of sugarcane plants of cultivars 88H0019, N19, N27 and N31, NCo310, have been up- or downregulated. For the purposes of the following discussion, these are hereinafter collectively referred to as T1 modifications.
  2. To establish whether promoter elements isolated from sugarcane can be used to target gene expression to specific regions of the plant: sugarcane plants, cultivar NCo310, have been transformed with novel promoter elements and a reporter gene b-glucuronidase (GUS) from E.coli. For the purposes of the following discussion, these are hereinafter collectively referred to as T2 modifications.

For both of these categories of tests, the selectable marker gene, nptII coding for the protein neomycin phosphotransferase, which inactivates principally kanamycin, geneticin and neomycin by phosphorylation, was introduced into the sugarcane. The information supplied after a request in terms of the Public Access to Information Act (PAIA) is a limited (non confidential information) 24-page copy of the application.


The available scientific information, as provided by the applicant, does not allow for a full evaluation or determination of the associated risks of the use of the transgenic lines. At a minimum, the literature indicates that a great deal more investigation has to be carried out on the impacts of transgenes before their release into the environment.

No indication is given of what the future intention of the transgenic development is and applicant has previously carried out similar trials and claimed the purpose as being for ‘proof of concept’ only; are we to assume the same applies here. In several instances where claims are made by the applicant of no adverse effects to human and animal health and the environment from release of the transgenic organism the reason is given that there is no difference between the native and genetically modified form. The preceding discussion makes it clear that this is not the case.

At the very least, independently verifiable research has to be carried out before such claims are made. Any potential category of risk introduced by the genetic modification as compared to risks from conventional breeding is still unclear from the application. The ability of ecosystems to develop gradually, the ability to anticipate environmental health effects and very importantly, the establishment of regulatory mechanisms that can effectively, efficiently and credibly manage risks associated with the use of GMOs has not kept apace with the rapid introduction of GMOs.

Traditional breeding practices have an established history of safe use dating back several years as opposed to the application of recombinant DNA technology for human use, which is as young as 22 years when genetically modified bacteria-produced insulin was first introduced and even younger for genetically modified plants at ten years.