South Africa: Campaign to label GM food in South Africa

By Martin Chemhere – The African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) and the South African Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering (SAFEAGE) have launched a nation-wide ‘Label GM Food: Our Right to Know’ campaign, to encourage the government to provide meaningful labelling for all genetically-modified (GM) foods in regulations under the Consumer Protection Act.

The latest draft regulations on GM food published by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) are wholly inadequate and unsatisfactory, since it fails to protect the citizens’ ‘freedom of choice’ of what they eat. The groups argue that the scope of the regulations shortsightedly only apply to 3 GM food types, namely, maize, soyabean and imported canola oil and exclude new approvals of GMOs such as GM potatoes and GM salmon that may come to the South African market in the future.

The regulations also allow companies to avoid labelling products where the GM ingredient in a food product contains less than 5% of GM content. “A 5% threshold not only denies us “Our Right To Know”, but is misleading. Consumers will be under the false impression that food containing less than 5% GM content is actually GM Free” said Zakiyya Ismail, campaign manager for the ACB.

The groups argue that the regulations have created a loophole that allows companies to avoid labelling and rely on the more ambiguous label, “May contain GM…” on the grounds that it is not feasible or possible for them to test for the presence of GM. According to Fahrie Hassan, of SAFEAGE and media liaison for the campaign ‘this ‘opt out’ provision will render labelling of GM food ineffective and meaningless and deny us Our Right to Know”.

ACB and SAFEAGE are vehemently opposed to GMOs in the food and agricultural sector because GMOs pose unacceptable risks to human and animal health, the environment and society.

The “Label GM Food: Our Right To Know” campaign is, therefore, a call to the public to support effective and meaningful labelling by signing a web-based petition at where information about what’s wrong with the draft labelling regulations are fully set out.

Genetically Modified (GM) food is produced artificially by a technological process (known as genetic engineering). Genes are taken from unrelated species such as viruses or bacteria and inserted into food crops. The major GM crops grown world-wide are maize, soybean, canola and cotton. All of these contain genes that make them resistant to either insect pests, or tolerant to chemical herbicides (some newer GM crops now contain more than one inserted gene, and are both insect resistant and herbicide tolerant – this is known as ‘gene-stacking’). These GM crops are either eaten directly by humans, used as animal feed, or used as ingredients in processed foods.

Over the years there have been concerns about GM Foods. Several feeding studies conducted on animals have revealed alarming results, with damage to internal organs and reproductive abnormalities reported. Where GM crops have been regularly planted over a number of years, evidence is emerging of both weeds and pests that have developed resistance to these. Additionally, in many areas non-GM crops have been contaminated by pollen from GM-crop varieties, severely reducing our ability to monitor additional environmental impacts. Because GM crops can be patented, a small number of extremely powerfully companies have been able to exert control over local and global food systems.

GM companies in South Africa include three of the world’s largest GM companies namely: Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred (a subsidiary of DuPont) and Syngenta. By its own account Monsanto controlled 50% of the South African maize market in 2009. South Africa ’s largest seed company, Pannar Seed, sells several GM seed varieties under license from Monsanto. Pannar was recently subject to a take-over bid by Pioneer Hi-Bred.

The major GM crops currently grown in South Africa are GM maize, soybean and cotton. South Africa is currently the only country in the world that grows a GM staple food, namely GM maize. Last year nearly 60% of all maize seed sold in the country was a GM variety. In 2009 an application was made to introduce a GM potato, which would have been another unenviable world first. Research is also ongoing, at various different stages, into GM sugarcane, grapes, cassava and sorghum.