The genetically managed food debate

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How South Africa manages genetic engineering

Hennie Duvenhage

Since the 1990s the topic of genetically modified organisms (GMO) has been controversial and at the centre of a highly polarised debate throughout the world. Countries like the USA are at the forefront of producing GMO food while France does not allow its production or import.

On the African continent, only South Africa, Egypt, Burkina Faso and Sudan allow GM crops to be grown commercially. As a matter of fact, 72% of all maize seed sold in South Africa in the 2011/2012 season, was GM andit  is the only country in the world that allows GM varieties of its national staple food to be grown commercially.

GMO occurs when an organism’s genetic material has been changed using genetic engineering techniques. It is a short cut to the usual process where individuals of the same species mate and the species grows stronger through inherited genes.

An example of a GMO is a plant that has been modified to contain a gene from a common soil bacterium “Bacillus thuringiensis,” giving it a built-in resistance to the maize stalk borer, an insect that attacks and destroys maize crops.

At the core of the debate is the question of food safety. Those against the use of genetic engineering claim that there is no scientific proof that GMO won’t cause side effects in the long run.

Their concern is about the current and potential implications that genetic modification and GMOs have for food security, the environment, biodiversity, human health, farmer’s income and the global food system.

The South African government along with the agriculture industry have been enthusiastic about genetic engineering as they believe it contributes to food security and profitable yields.

Currently, genetically modified maize, soya-bean and cotton have been approved for general use in South Africa. All activities related to GMOs are regulated by the Genetically Modified Organisms Act, 1997 (Act No. 15 of 1997).

The aim of the act is to ensure that all activities involving the use of GMOs are carried out in such a way as to limit the possible harmful consequences to the environment and human as well as animal health.

South African consumers are also protected by the Consumer Protection Act, 2008 (Act No 68 of 2008). This act looks at the product labeling and trade descriptions of GMOs.

For the purposes of the act, all imported and locally produced goods that contain 5% or more GM components have to be labeled as “containing genetically modified ingredients or components”. This gives consumers the option to choose if they want to support this technology or not.

Only where goods, components or ingredients contain less than 1% GMO material  can a producer or importer claim that thry do not contain GMO.

The department of trade and industry is in the process of amending the regulations that govern the labeling of GM food in South Africa and will soon recommend the final regulations to the minister.


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