AgriSA president Johan Moller

IF SA turned to nongenetically modified maize crops, the yields would be smaller, prices would increase and crops would require more pesticides, which could harm humans, AgriSA president Johan Moller said yesterday.

Mr Moller was responding to the African Centre for Biosafety’s call to ban the import and cultivation of the genetically modified maize RoundUp Ready Maize NK603, by giant seed company Monsanto.

Last week, Russia banned the import of this maize cultivar. A contentious new French study on the long-term health effects of genetically modified foods — published in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Toxicology last week — suggests consumers of this maize are at a substantially higher risk of cancer.

SA ranks ninth in genetically modified crop cultivation globally, with 2.3-million hectares being used to grow maize, soybeans and cotton. "In SA, almost all our maize is genetically modified," Mr Moller said.

Mariam Mayet, director of the African Centre for Biosafety, said yesterday this particular cultivar, NK603, constituted 40% of SA’s maize crop. She ascribed a lack of action by the government to industry lobbyists and the fact that blacks consumed the maize, and said the response would be different if another demographic group ate the maize.

Mr Moller said: "The main advantage of ( modified crops) is the increase in yield, and (it is) less susceptible to pests and drought. If you use non-genetically modified crops, you’ll have to use more pesticides, and you might pick up residues of pesticides that make them harmful to people."

The lead author on the study Gilles-Eric Seralini, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Caen, in France, said the study showed that rats fed genetically modified maize or exposed to the Monsanto herbicide RoundUp were at greater risk of developing tumours, suffering organ damage or dying prematurely. However, other scientists have dismissed the study as "scaremongering" and "shoddy" research.

Klaus Ammann, a professor emeritus at the University of Bern, in Switzerland, said yesterday that the rats used in the study were prone to tumours, that it had been "clandestine", and the methodology was flawed.

Biotechnology stakeholders association AfricaBio said last week: "Numerous scientists worldwide have called into question the paper’s data."

Mark Tester, a research professor for the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics at the University of Adelaide, said the findings raised the question of why no previous studies had flagged similar concerns.