The South African Department of Trade and Industry is considering an amendment to current legislation related to the labeling of genetically modified (GM) produce.
Currently in South Africa, produce containing 5% or more of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) must be labeled as such, but the amendment would see the removal of the word ‘organisms’ to prevent food manufacturers not labeling processed GM food.
African Center for Biosafety (ABC) researcher Haidee Swanby told www.freshfruitportal.com the food industry industry’s position was that once GM food had been processed, it no longer constituted an organism and therefore did not have to be labeled.
“The biotech and food industries are saying that it shouldn’t apply to processed and manufactured food, it should only apply to living modified organisms,” Swanby said.
“So for example, with whole kernels or soya beans, they are saying that once you process them they are no longer organisms.”
Swanby explained the biotech and food industries were also arguing that produce should only be labeled for the absence of GMOs.
“They want non-GM producers to label them, not the other way round. But the actual act that the regulations fall under require a presence of GMO, so unless they change their act I don’t think they can win this argument,” she said.
Swanby said one key point the food industry highlighted was that around 80% of South Africa’s staple food, maize, was GM, and so it made more sense for foodstuffs in the minority to be marked.
Another issue is the question of whether the 5% GMO threshold that requires food to be labeled as GM is too high, and ABC director Mariam Mayet claimed the figure was not based on any scientific measure but purely commercial considerations.
“So there’s been a big fight about that as well as saying ‘why for the European export market do you do it at 0.9% but for South African consumers it’s 5%?,” Swanby said.
“Consumers are saying if they don’t want to eat GM, they don’t want to eat GM – they don’t care if it’s 1% or 4% or 6% – if it’s GM then just label it.
“That’s also been a long fight with the industry because of all the big bulk shipments coming from the United States or Argentina. It’s those kind of guys who have been lobbying for 5% contamination – that’s easier for them to manage.”
Consumers ‘didn’t really know much about GM’
According to Swanby, it was generally the more affluent sections of society who were most concerned that they could be unknowingly eating GM produce.
“For example we did a whole lot of testing of products a couple of years ago and a particular baby food called Purity had high levels of GM,” she said.
“That was used by a lot of middle and upper classes who would feed it to their babies, and there was a massive outcry and the company agreed to take GM out of their baby food.
“The next year we tested a daily porridge stable and that had very high levels of GM and there was no outcry, because the higher classes don’t eat that.”
When asked why the issue of GM food labeling had taken so long to be debated publicly on a large-scale given the long time the food has been legally grown in the country, Swanby cited important political events in the country overshadowing any legislation changes.
“The GMO act came into force in 1999. I think even globally consumers didn’t really know much about GM at that point,” she said.
“Also in South Africa 1994, that was our first democratic election so there was a whole change in government at that exact time and basically the biotech industry just managed to draft that legislation at that big transition time and consumers didn’t know about it.
“Only over the years as the consumers began to see global debate raging pressure started to be put on the government to put labeling on it. But then there’s been a very strong industry lobby to stop it. So it’s taken a very long time.”
Photo: Wikimedia Commons