GM food and crops: what’s happening in South Africa?

An update on the state of GMOs in South Africa.

Although the biotechnology industry would like us to believe that genetically modified (GM) crops are a resounding success, we should note that 98% of GM crops grown are planted in only five countries, the US, Argentina, Brazil, Canada and China, and, in addition, only 21 countries around the world have adopted GM crops, with South Africa being the world’s eighth largest GMO producer (GMO = genetically modified organism).

No other African country grows GM crops on a commercial basis, although some have experimental field trials. Sources vary, but estimates are that South Africa plants 40% of its maize crop to GM varieties, 60% of its soya, and 80% of its cotton and we import GM maize and soya from Argentina and the USA mainly for animal feed, but whether you like it or not, you are probably eating GM food.

For South Africans GM and non-GM crops are usually not segregated or kept apart, and soya is found in 60-70% of processed foods, including baby formulas, while cotton seed oil is used extensively in the fast food industry, and cotton seed cake is fed to animals, where the GM genes could find their way into the human food chain via meat and milk. GM canola may be imported into the country from the US or Canada for use in canola oil and margarine, as a commodity clearance permit was issued to import four GM canola lines in 2001 although GM canola is not grown commercially in SA. Maize is used in mielie meal, some breakfast cereals, and in processed foods in the form of corn syrup and starch.

At this stage no GM fruit of vegetables are on the supermarket shelves in South Africa. The long life tomatoes we buy are not GM, however, a number of other GM crops and vegetables are grown experimentally. Permits have been granted for field trials of GM canola, potatoes, wheat, groundnuts and sugarcane, and there could be other GM crops still at the laboratory stage of development for which we have no records. An application has gone in for the use of a GM yeast in wine production, although this has been opposed by the wine industry.

Applications have been submitted to the Registrar of GMOs for field trials of GM grape vines, GM cassava and GM millet, but at the time of writing, none of these applications have been approved. According to Biowatch South Africa, more GM permits were approved in South Africa in 2006 that in any previous year.

The first GM crop to be grown commercially in this country was GM cotton in 1997, and as mentioned earlier, South Africa grows GM maize, cotton and soya.

These crops exhibit two bioengineered traits, the one being insect resistance, and the other herbicide tolerance. Insect resistant GM maize and cotton contain the Bacillus Thuriengensus (Bt) gene from a soil bacterium that produces an insecticide in every single cell of the plant, which kills certain insects, while herbicide tolerant varieties of soya, cotton and maize, contain a bacterium gene that renders the plant tolerant to certain broad spectrum herbicides. This means a farmer can plant a herbicide tolerant GM crop, and when the weeds come up along with the crop, the farmer applies a specific broadspectrum weed killer (herbicide) that destroys every green plant in the field except the desired crop.

In 2007 we could see the first GM vegetable on our supermarket shelves

The Agricultural Research Council, using taxpayers money and with backing from USAID and in conjunction with Michigan State University, have stated they will apply for the commercial release of GM potatoes in SA during 2007. This does not make sense, as GM potatoes were withdrawn from the market in the USA after major fast food chains refused to use them due to consumer concerns.

South Africa is one of the few countries in the world, along with the US, that uses genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH), also known as rBST (recombinant Bovine Somatotropin). rBST is injected into dairy cows to increase milk production, however most industialised countries have banned rBST use due to human health and animal rights concerns, and it is being increasingly sidelined in the US, where consumers are choosing to go to the other end of the scale and purchase organically produced milk. Many supermarkets and dairies in South Africa now label their milk ‘rBST-free’, so check the labels of the milk you purchase.

For a scientific fact sheet on the dangers of rBST (or rBGH) use visit:
What most South Africans don’t realise, is that we already have GM food labeling laws, written by the Department of Health, but they are so totally useless they do not label any GM foods currently on the market. This is in keeping with the South African governments GM-friendly policies.

In 2006 the Department of Trade and Industry tried to introduce mandatory GM food labelling under the Consumer Protection Bill, but the clause was taken out at the insistence of the Department of Agriculture. In the European Union, any food with a GM content of more than 0.9% has to be labelled as containing GMOs, as a result of this mandatory labeling and EU consumer rejection of GM, there are virtually no GM foods on EU supermarket shelves.

Our agricultural industry unofficially segregates GM from non-GM grain for export purposes, as our trading partners refuse to accept GMOs, but SA consumers are forced to eat the GM food our trading partners refuse. Most supermarket chains do not offer SA consumers a non-GM option, however, Woolworths state they have removed GM ingredients from their products wherever possible, and will supply a list of products that may contain GM ingredients upon request. For more information e-mail Woolworths from their web site

Other sources of GMOs are food additives, enzymes, flavourings, and processing agents, including the sweetner aspartame, and rennet used to make hard cheeses. Aspartame is by far the most controversial of these. This sweetener is marketed under a number of trademark names such as Equal, NutraSweet and Canderel, and is an ingredient in approximately 6,000 consumer foods and beverages sold worldwide. It is commonly used in diet soft drinks, and also in some brands of chewable vitamin supplements, and is common in many sugar-free chewing gums. To find out more search “aspartame controversy” or “aspartame dangers” or just “aspartame” on the internet.

The Motley Fool, an award-winning voice on investing and finance, which describes itself as “the world’s premier multimedia financial education company”, argues that law suites and consumer rejection could eventually destroy the GM seed industry, however, the present Peak Oil crisis could be just the lifeline the biotechnology industry needs. Taxpayer subsidised biofuels from GM crops could swell the coffers of the biotech industry beyond their wildest dreams. However, not everyone agrees that biofuels from crops are an energy solution, see Biofuels: Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits at

The planting of GM crops will continue to increase in South Africa as long as our government promotes GM technology, allows weak biosafety legislation, and uses taxpayers’ money to develop products such as the GM potato and to subsidise biofuel from agricultural crops.

Civil society resistance to GM foods and crops is growing here, as it is in the rest of the world, but a lot more needs to be done before we can relax and enjoy safe food and biofuels produced in a sustainable and environmentally friendly manner.

For additional information on GMOs in South Africa visit:
• African Centre for Biosafety
• Biowatch South Africa
• Earthlife Africa
• Environmental Justice Networking Forum
• South African Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering (SAFeAGE)