Frankenfood: GM food in South Africa

Genetically modified (GM) crops currently account for 29% of crop production worldwide. South Africa is currently the only country in Africa to grow GM crops commercially.

Despite the lack of regulations governing food labelling, many food products available to the South African consumer carry negative or positive labels with regard to genetic modification, such as “non-GMO,” “GMO Free” or similar.

Professor C.D. Viljoen of the University of the Free State recently tested a number of different maize and soy products available in South African supermarkets to determine the presence of GM ingredients.

Of the 58 products selected and sampled, 44 — that’s a whopping 76% — tested positive for GM ingredients.

South Africa is the only country in Africa which is growing GMO crops commercially. The GMOs available in South Africa include insect-resistant and herbicide tolerant maize, insect-resistant and herbicide tolerant cotton and herbicide tolerant soybean.

We estimate that GMO crops account for
24% of yellow maize
10% of white maize
50% of soybean
85% of cotton production
in South Africa.

Despite GMOs being grown commercially in South Africa since 1997, there is very little consumer awareness – even with government and NGOs making information on GMOs available. In fact, a HSRC survey in 2004 found that 70% of South Africans have never even heard of genetic engineering! Many countries have introduced labelling regulations for GM foods. Although GMO labelling does not have any bearing on the safety aspect of GMOs, it is used to give consumers a choice, between GM and non-GM, allowing them to balance concerns of morality and perceived risk.

According to the regulations of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act in South Africa, GM labelling is mandatory for products that:
differ significantly from the characteristic composition and nutritional value of the corresponding existing foodstuff
where the mode of storage, preparation or cooking of such a foodstuff differs significantly from that of the corresponding existing foodstuff
contain an allergen
are derived from plant material containing animal nucleic acid or protein material containing animal nucleic acid or protein derived from a human or from a different taxonomic animal family

Thus, no GM foods in South Africa currently qualify for mandatory labelling, as the transferred genes in GM foods are from microbes and not animals or humans, are not known allergens and do not confer improved or enhanced characteristics in terms of composition or nutritional value.

Although no provision is made for labelling that allows consumers the choice of preference between GM and non-GM foods in South Africa, many products can be found in retail and health outlets with “non-GM”, “GMO free”, “organic” and even “may be genetically modified” labels.

Presumably the type of label being used is aimed at perceived consumer perception and preference, especially with products marketed to vegetarians. However, since no regulations exist for GM labelling in South Africa, there is no system to verify such claims and consumers must take the labels at face value.

The study
58 food products representing a variety of maize and soy products were selected from retail stores including Pick ‘n Pay and Woolworths as well as small retail outlets including health food shops.DNA was extracted from the products and purified using DNA extraction kits. The extracted DNA was then screened for the presence of GMOs.

The results
Out of 58 off-the-shelf food products sampled randomly from different retail and health outlets, 76% tested positive for GMOs. For maize, GM was detected in 63% of local and 90% of soy products. These results indicate that the current GM production in South Africa may be higher than the estimated 24% for yellow maize, 10% for white maize and 50% for soy bean.

adapted from the Research Paper
“Detection of GMO in food products in South Africa: Implications of GMO labelling”
by C.D. Viljoen, B.K. Dajee and G.M. Botha
of the GMO Testing Facility, University of the Free State