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South African court to hear case challenging Monsanto/Bayer’s drought tolerant GM maize

After five years of protracted legal proceedings, the High Court in Pretoria, South Africa, will on Tuesday, February 7 and Wednesday, February 8, 2023, hear the landmark legal challenge against Monsanto/Bayer’s drought tolerant maize.

High Court in Pretoria
High Court in Pretoria, South Africa

The court case follows several years of campaigning and advocacy work by the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), other organisations, and members of the public, fiercely challenging Monsanto’s unproven claimed benefits of drought tolerance, going back to 2007, when the field trials involving the drought tolerant trait first commenced. This trait was ostensibly to be offered to small-scale farmers via the Gates-funded Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, targeting several African countries.

Upon later approval by the EC of the trait for commercial cultivation, the ACB lodged an appeal against the South African Executive Council: GMO Act (EC) decision. The appeal was supported by a submission by an expert witness, Dr Jack Heinemann of the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand, who conducted an independent evaluation of the EC’s decision, and identified potential hazards with MON 87460 capable of causing adverse effects.

Unfortunately, the ACB’s appeal was not successful and the approval for commercial release of MON 87460 was confirmed by both the Appeal Board and the Minister of Agriculture in 2017. Thus, in the same year, the ABC approached the High Court for a review, supported by Legal Aid South Africa.

Since then, the commercial cultivation of this trait has been on hold, which is considered a huge victory for the ACB, civil society, farmer networks, and consumers.

Curiously, Monsanto sought the approval for the commercial growing of a triple stacked GM maize variety that included the contested trait, combined with Monsanto’s ancient herbicide tolerance and insecticidal traits, respectively (MON89034 and NK603). Anomalously, this application was rejected by the very same South African biosafety authorities that had approved the single trait.

The result of Bayer having merged with Monsanto, to become the world’s largest supplier by sales of both seeds and pesticides, has meant that Bayer also became a respondent in the ongoing review.

The ACB’s review is bolstered by the expertise of two further independent experts, Dr Angelika Hilbeck of the Institute of Integrative Biology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and independent biosafety scientist, Dr Eva Sirinathsinghji.

The ACB and experts have challenged Monsanto’s claims concerning the yield benefits of MON 87460, as a result of its professed drought tolerance, particularly in the South African context. Further to this, serious knowledge gaps and uncertainty with regard to the safety of MON87460 have also been raised.

Now, more than a year after legal proceedings closed and Heads of Argument were filed, we finally have our day in court. The best outcome anticipated by the ACB would be if the judgement leads to a reversal of the decision to approve the commercial cultivation of this trait, which would likely significantly hamper the continued push of these failed GM varieties on African countries too.

The ACB continues to point out that the most effective ways of supporting small-scale farmers are through agroecological approaches focusing on small-scale sustainable agriculture; locally adapted seed and ecological farming that better addresses the complexities of climatic change, hunger, poverty, and productive demands on agriculture in the developing world.

In 2017, the ACB lodged legal proceedings with the High Court of South Africa to review and overturn the decisions of the South African Executive Council: GMO Act (EC), the GMO Appeal Board, and the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, approving Monsanto/Bayer’s genetically modified (GM) drought-tolerant (DT) maize variety MON 86470 for commercial cultivation in SA.

The ACB has consistently argued that there is insufficient data to demonstrate the claimed drought tolerant benefit, based on either yield or agronomic performance advantage.

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