The South African Committee on Genetic Experimentation (SAGENE) was South Africa's first regulatory body relevant to GMOs. Established as early as 1979 under South Africa's then apartheid regime, its members at this stage undertook laboratory inspections, provided experimental guidelines, and guidelines for GM microorganisms.
In 1989 SAGENE advised the Dept of Agriculture when it received its first application for a GM field trial. This was for Bt cotton and it was authorised in terms of the Pest Control Act.
In 1989, SAGENE had been given the mandate to advise on biosafety issues. SAGENE was legally reconstituted in 1992 and again in January 1994. The latter agreement came into effect just a few months before the first democractic election in South Africa.
SAGENE's new terms of reference included furnishing advice to any Minister, statutory or government body on any form of legislation or controls pertaining to the importation and/or release into the environment of GMOs.
As the new South African government, which was ushered in on 27 April 1994, had no particular knowledge or expertise in these areas, regulatory matters were left very much in the hands of SAGENE.
SAGENE continued to act as the regulators until the GMO Act came into effect on 1 December 1999. By the time of the GMO Act a considerable number of field trial permits had been granted and Monsanto's Bt cotton and its 'Yieldguard' maize (MON810) had already been commercialised.
SAGENE was not only the driving force behind a rapid rate of GMO approvals. The task of drafting the GMO Act had also fallen principally to SAGENE. This meant that industry-linked SAGENE members like Muffy Koch, who is part of the industry-backed lobby group AfricaBio, and Jane Morris, who was nominated onto SAGENE by the South African Chamber of Business, were able to play a key role in the drafting of the Act. SAGENE's chair, Jennifer Thomson, has also been a leading member of AfricaBio.
The GMO ACT led to SAGENE being reconstituted as an Advisory Commitee and a sub-committee to provide expert advice on GM crop releases to an Executive Council. Although the latter is the final decision making body, heavy reliance is placed on the Advisory Committee to furnish expert scientific and technical advice. This means that key guidance on regulatory maters continues to come from advisors who, in the case of Thompson and Koch, for instance, are also part of an industry-backed GM lobby.