It is estimated that the economic gains from biotech crops in South Africa in 2013 alone was $313-million, which shows that biotechnology, or genetically modified organisms (GMO), has a positive economic impact on South Africa, according to Department of Science and Technology director-general Phil Mjwara.
Speaking at the Public Perceptions of Biotechnology survey results presentation in Pretoria, on Tuesday, Mjwara noted that South Africa grew more than 2.7-million hectares of genetically modified (GM) crops in 2014.
“Between 86% and 90% of maize and soy are GM and 100% of cotton is GM,” he said, adding that, while GM crops have been approved and adopted in South Africa by science-based regulatory systems and farmers, they still remain a source of public controversy.
“While it is appropriate for the public to have varying opinions on GM crops, it is important to provide scientific evidence where deliberate misinformation is offered,” he said.
Mjwara pointed out that the biosafety of any GMO is regulated in South Africa under various Acts and regulations, complemented by different institutions and approaches.
Meanwhile, the survey of South African public’s perceptions of biotechnology focused broadly around biotechnology, as well as on more specific areas such as agricultural biotechnology, medical biotechnology and indigenous biotechnology knowledge.
The survey shows there has been a major increase in attitudes that favour buying GM food, with the proportion of the public who would buy GM food on the basis of health considerations increasing from 59% to 77%.
The public’s attitudes towards buying on the basis of cost considerations and environmental considerations have also increased from 51% to 73% and 50% to 68%, respectively.
When it comes to knowledge about biotechnology, the study reveals that most South Africans report having little or no knowledge about biotechnology.
“A younger and more privileged group report considerably greater knowledge than older and less privileged groups. Almost half of the public feel that biotechnology is too specialised for them to understand,” the survey says.
It further reveals that South Africans have used biotechnology in the context of indigenous knowledge systems (IKSs) and practices.
For instance, groups with low incomes and low levels of education may find it difficult to engage with concepts of mainstream biotechnology, though they harbour rich traditions of knowledge and IKS practice that may be successfully leveraged to build greater awareness of biotechnology.
When it comes to the perceptions of medical biotechnology, the overall knowledge about medical applications of biotechnology is similar to that of GM foods, which suggests that attitudes among the public cut across specific applications of biotechnology.
White and Indian South Africans are more likely to see biotechnology as an overall risk to society compared with black African and coloured groups.
Higher levels of education and living standards are also associated with an increased likelihood to view biotechnology as a risk.
Those living on rural farms and in urban informal areas were substantially more positive in their assessment of GM food.
“An individual with no ethical or religious objections to GMO is much more likely to believe that biotechnology is a benefit rather than a risk. If an individual thinks that government effectively regulates GM food, then he or she will be less likely to view biotechnology with uncertainty and more likely to rate it as a benefit than a risk,” the survey noted.
The survey further recommended that policy interventions needed to include a strategic approach to addressing different publics in different ways, drawing on the evidence related to their level of knowledge, attitudes and preferred sources of information.