Greens seek state's GMO 'pharming' secrets
May 24, 2004
By Mariette le Roux
Environmental lobby group Biowatch sought a Pretoria High Court order on Monday compelling the government to divulge details of all genetically modified organisms (GMO) brought into or manufactured in the country to date.
The body is seeking an order directing the state to make available a list of facts concerning each permit, approval and authorisation granted for all GMO imports, exports, field trials and general releases to date.
This included, in each case, a description of the GMO, its purpose, the name and address of the permit applicant, the area where the GMO would be used, plans for its monitoring, emergency measures in case of an accident, and the relevant environmental impact studies.
'Our world is not for sale'
It also sought similar particulars of those applications still pending.
Biowatch lodged its court application after several failed attempts to get certain information.
John Butler, for the non-governmental body, argued that a clear legislative duty of openness and transparency rested on the government in terms of environmental issues.
He disputed contentions that the information being sought was confidential, saying the government was obliged to inform the public prior to any GMO trial or general release.
"The information, if it does exist, should have been in the public domain in any event," Butler told the court. "Members of the public and farmers in an affected should understand the potential threat they face."
The Open Democracy Advice Centre joined the proceedings as amicus curiae (friend of the court), and argued that Biowatch was entitled to the data being sought on the basis of its Constitutional right of access to information.
Access to information held by public and private institutions should only be denied where it was clearly justified, and such a decision had to be supported by factual evidence, it said in court papers.
The respondents are the Registrar of Genetic Resources, the Executive Council for Genetically Modified Organisms, the Minister of Agriculture, biotechnology company Monsanto South Africa, seed company Stoneville Pedigreed, and GMO Producer D and PL South Africa.
Mervyn Rip, SC, rejected on behalf of the registrar, the council and the minister, assertions that his clients were attempting to repress information.
Some of Biowatch's questions have been "substantially answered", he said.
However, Biowatch was asking such vast amounts of information that his clients were administratively unable to deal with the request.
He also contended that the requests did not follow procedures set out in the Promotion of Access to Information Act.
But he conceded under questioning by acting judge Eric Dunn that the requests for information preceded the enactment of the legislation, and that Biowatch was "possibly" entitled to the information it was seeking.
About 50 anti-GM protesters gathered outside the court in yellow T-shirts with the words: "Protect Africa's harvest."
They marched through the city centre with placards reading: "Our world is not for sale", "Phucking Pharming", and "Save our seeds". - Sapa