South African Biotechnologists participate in major new European Food Safety Research Project

Food safety comes under the spotlight in a new European Commission-funded research project in which 33 leading organisations worldwide are participating. South Africa has become the only participating African partner and one of only two non-European countries through the inclusion of CSIR Food, Biological and Chemical Technologies in the research consortium. The research will attempt to improve current risk analysis practices for food produced by different breeding approaches and production practices.

“Food safety incidents such as Mad Cow Disease, the spreading of dioxins in animal feed and animal-derived foods as well as emerging pathogens have evoked broad public concerns in Europe. In addition, public doubts about the safety of genetically modified (GM) food crops with respect to human consumption and adverse effects on the environment resulted in a European moratorium on the large-scale cultivation of transgenic food crops. These factors have all contributed to the investment in a research project on food safety”, says CSIR biotechnology specialist Prof Jane Morris, Director of the African Centre for Gene Technologies, a SERA initiative (SERA, the Southern Education and Research Alliance, is a strategic partnership between the CSIR and the University of Pretoria).

The four-year research project will attempt to answer questions such as whether the different agricultural production systems – traditional high input agriculture, low input production as carried out by small-scale farmers, and cultivation of GM crops as food – carry different risks and whether the globalisation of trade may lead to new risks with negative impact on human health and the environment, for instance the spread of new virulent pathogens or antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains. It will look at new approaches to evaluate the cumulative effects of contaminants and natural toxins through for example toxicity models; at ways of incorporating public concerns into food safety issues; and what changes are needed at institutional structures in an improved risk analysis scenario.

The comparative risk analysis of foods produced by conventional versus modern biotechnology methods, using the latest metabolic profiling methods, is a key part of the research and is the area in which South African scientists intend making a significant contribution. The project also includes a significant training component to build the capacity of South African scientists in this high-tech field.

Molecular biologists, analytical scientists and plant pathologists at the CSIR will be joined by research peers at the Agricultural Research Council and the University of Pretoria to research the two commercially-important crops that have been selected, namely potatoes (the fourth most important world food crop) and maize (the third most planted field crop in the world). They will investigate the plants’ metabolic profiles, derived from the chemical reactions that occur during synthesis and breakdown, as well as the variations in the proteome (the total complement of proteins) produced. This will be done for plants showing “natural” variations, somaclonal variations (eg through tissue culture procedures) and GMOs; for plant materials produced under different production systems; and for plants with fungal or bacterial contamination in comparison with uninfected plants.

“From a South African perspective, we are particularly interested in the results of nutritional comparisons of crops farmed in a high-input agricultural production system as opposed to low-input small-holder farming”, says Dr Morris.

She says in addition to the potential value of the research outcome to which South Africa will have access, the opportunity for South African scientists to interact with the world’s best researchers in this domain, is invaluable. This has been made possible by a significant investment by the Department of Science and Technology, first through availing seed funding for meetings and networking that led to the CSIR joining the consortium, and subsequently through a financial commitment to the project.

Internationally, the Safe Foods project is coordinated by the RIKILT Institute of Food Safety, part of Wageningen University Research in the Netherlands.