Southern Africa's bishops call for freeze on GM foods

 The Southern African Bishops' Conference has expressed fears over the use of genetic engineering in agriculture and food production. In a document, the conference, which represents the bishops of Botswana, South Africa and Swaziland said: 'We are aware that genetic engineering is an imprecise technology and that the long-term health effects of consuming GE food have not been assessed. Scientists are warning that new allergens, carcinogens and toxins may be introduced into foods. 'Tens of thousands of hectares in our country have been planted with genetically-engineered crops. Modified maize and cotton are already commercially produced, while soybean, potato, tomato, apple and canola are in a trial phase. The damage to the environment may be irreversible. 'Once released, genetically engineered organisms become part of our ecosystem. Another major issue posed by the transgenic crop technologies is the cross-pollination of neighbouring non-GE crops due to pollen drift. This pollution could result in the eradication of biodiversity in areas bordering genetically modified crops. Because we do not know whether there are any serious risks to the environment or human health, to produce and market genetically modified food is morally irresponsible. The precautionary principle should apply, as it is done in medical research. 'Therefore we call on the government of South Africa to introduce a five year freeze on genetic engineering, in support of the campaign launched by the South African Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering (SAFeAGE). We agree that a five-year period is the minimum time needed to implement stringent safety tests on GE foods and to thoroughly research the health, safety and environmental impacts of GE crops. During this time the import and export of GE foods and crops as well as the patenting of seeds for food and farm crops should be stopped. 'We also call on the government to introduce compulsory labelling of genetically-engineered food. In this way South African consumers will be able to exercise their right to buy food of their choice. This right is presently denied since there is no way of distinguishing a modified product from any other product. We finally appeal to the government to sign the international Protocol on Biosafety. This protocol requires that countries exporting genetically modified organism provide, in advance, detailed information to the importing country. This measure will ensure the right of the consumer and reduce possible negative consequences to our health and the environment.'