Why is Genetically Modified Food Not Labelled in South Africa?

By Glenn Ashton · 4 Jun 2008

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The Case to Include GM Labelling in the Consumer Protection Bill.

The Consumer Protection Bill, an act of Parliament devised to protect the rights of consumers, as its name suggests, has come before the National Council of Provinces, usually the final step before ratification. Interestingly the NCOP has asked for comment on the bill before it is ratified. One issue that has elicited much debate is the matter of foods derived from crops that have been genetically modified (GM).

Some of the defined reasons for the Consumer Bill, clearly laid out in the preamble, include; providing relevant information for consumers, promoting sustainable and environmentally responsible consumption and protecting consumers from hazards to their health and safety. The bill additionally aims to provide effective redress for consumers, promote consumer participation in the decision making process and facilitate the freedom of consumers to associate and form groups to advocate and promote their common interest.

In light of all of this it is remarkable that the drafters of this bill have been persuaded to remove all reference to disclosing the nature and extent of the presence of genetically modified components, as included in its initial draft in section 27 (1) (a) (i), where it explicitly stated that producers, “must display on or in association with that packaging or those goods, a notice in the prescribed manner and form that...discloses the presence, nature and extent of any…genetically modified ingredients or components of those goods.”

More interesting still is how this reference was withdrawn and what the motivation was.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are generally legislated by the Genetically Modified Organisms Act, Act 15 of 1997, overseen by the Department of Agriculture. While this Act has recently been reviewed, it remains a controversial and industry friendly piece of legislation. It has been roundly criticised as facilitating the introduction of GM crops rather than meaningfully regulating them. It has no reference to consumer protection; in fact it undermines this as it clearly states that any negative effects of GM organisms shall be the responsibility of the ‘user’. That can mean anyone, including the consumer.

Quite how the consumer is meant to control this onerous responsibility is moot, given that the Department of Agriculture has stringently opposed labelling and tracking of GM crops through the food supply. It has actively supported the industry line that GM crops are the same as natural varieties of food crops, despite this claim being completely unsupported by scientific facts. Ironically GM crops are unique and different enough to be patented!

An indication of how the clause referring to GM was withdrawn from the Consumer Protection Bill is highlighted by exchanges in 2006 around the labelling of GM crops. In a meeting of the Executive Council, the decision making body responsible for administering the GMO Act, Ben Durham, a noted proponent of GM technology employed by the department of Science and Technology stated that according to expert opinion, the GM industry should be self regulated within parameters set by government.

It is notable that the scientist, who supposedly made this statement, Prof. Chris Viljoen of the University of the Free State, an expert in the regulation of GM technology in South Africa, says he was misquoted.

In clarification Prof. Viljoen stated, “The comment by Ben Durham is slightly out of context. The discussion had been around the fact that government wants the industry to self-regulate. My comment had been that this would still require government to establish parameters in which this would happen. But I never suggested that self-regulation was the method of choice.”

This apparently wilful misinterpretation is indicative of the pro-industry bias within both the Departments of Agriculture and Science and Technology. It is this bias that lies behind the Department of Agriculture intervention to have references to GMOs withdrawn from the Consumer Protection Bill.

The department of Agriculture has repeatedly stated its clear intentions to keep full control of GM regulation within its ambit. This overlooks the fact that the GMO Act plays no role whatsoever in consumer protection, despite continuous lobbying to have such wording introduced by public interest groups for over a decade.

The regulator of the GMO Act, an official appointed by the minister of Agriculture has historically refused to divulge basic safety information requested on GMO crops. This forced the NGO Biowatch to take the government to court to gain this information, which was achieved.

Behind all of this lies the hidden hand of powerful financial interests, mainly the multinational Monsanto, currently the biggest seed company in the world and South Africa, as well as the corporation that controls the patents on most of the GM crops grown locally and globally. Monsanto has been found guilty of bribery and lying in many cases around the world. It has had an inordinate influence on national and international regulatory mechanisms, directly and indirectly, through front groups like AfricaBio, Hans Lombard Communications, The International Service for the Acquisition of AgriBiotech Applications, the Free Market Foundation and CropLife, to name just a few.

This is also of especial concern as far as the relationship to issues of funding of political entities is concerned, particularly given the secrecy behind this cornerstone of democracy in South Africa.

Whatever the reasons that references to the labelling and identification of GM derived foods in South Africa have been removed from the Consumer Protection Bill, they clearly lie at odds with the stated reasons for drafting this Bill contained within the preamble.

The fact is that there is a broad and inclusive grouping of individuals and organisations with well defined concerns about GM ingredients being snuck into their food supply without their knowledge or permission, which has been ignored for years. Yet the Consumer Bill makes explicit reference to just such consumer organisations, such as SAFeAGE, a local GM lobby network with over 3 million members, providing a powerful reason to re-insert the reference to GM labelling in the Bill.

Beside the above, there are several other good reasons to have proper GM labelling in place. First of all is the fact that it is completely unscientific and misleading to claim that nobody has been affected by GM foods if they are not being tracked and identified from farm to plate. If they had been, untoward effects may have been able to be isolated, whereas with no identification any ill effects are most likely to be ascribed to other causes.

Secondly if GM food is as safe as it is claimed to be then there should be no reluctance to identify it. The most vociferous opponents of labelling are the GM corporations like Monsanto, who claim GM food is safe. Despite the fact that this claim is completely unsubstantiated in the scientific literature, as shown by the forced withdrawal of a Monsanto advertisement by the Advertising Standards Authority in South Africa in 2007 because Monsanto failed to provide such proof that GM derived foods were safe, as they claimed.

A major reason put forth by Monsanto and others to exclude GM crops from labelling is that this would increase food costs. This is a red herring and has been shown to not be the case. In fact the increased value of properly labelled products would ensure full life cycle responsibility by those who introduce it to the market, as the Consumer Protection Bill clearly aims to.

Third is the fact that the GMO Act is not a consumer bill but simply a facilitatory act for the introduction of GM crops. It was not written to include any consumer protections. In fact it avoids these by putting the onus on ‘the user’, which is the consumer, while simultaneously failing to provide any mechanism to enable this.

In light of all of the above, and given the clarity of the intentions of the preamble to the Consumer Protection Bill, it is clear that the NCOP can no longer omit the matter of labelling of GM foods from the Bill. The representatives of the NCOP must, as a matter of duty, insist on its inclusion when the Bill is ratified. To fail to do so would be a failure to protect the rights of South African consumers, especially in light of the fact that we have the first GM staple food in the world in white GM maize.

Glenn Ashton is chair of the Steering Committee for SAFeAGE, the SA Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering, networking the interests of over 3.3 million consumers concerned about GM foods in South Africa.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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520530 Verified user
3 Jun

Another capitalist ploy

To view the consequences of GM seed, the original propagated intention thereof has to be considered. It was supposed to limit the input costs for farmers by modifying the seed to be pest and drought resistant and to increase crop yields. To the contrary input costs have escalated because farmers are now forced to buy seed from multinationals like Monsanto at astronomical prices. Before the introduction of GM seed they could retain seed from harvested crops but GM seed cannot be replanted.

From the outset ethical questions arose regarding economical issues related to the control of modified crops and seeds by powerful corporations and the dominance they could exercise over small farmers, particularly in developing countries. These initial fears are now becoming reality. As usual capitalism is not about improving conditions for the masses, but rather to gain effective control over the masses by financially enslaving them on a global scale.

The fact that GMF legislation was slapped together without much consideration for the consumer is confirmation that consumers are considered merely as cash cows within a failing capitalist system. It further puts a question mark on the sincerity and ability of the current government to protect the state (consumer) from exploitation. As stated in your article, the possibility of secret funding of political entities cannot be disregarded.

The numerous appalling socio-economical issues that plague SA and numerous other countries are extracts of the perilous capitalist policy exercised by democratically elected governments. The SA electorate must guard against a post 2009 continuation of our current misery. Government accountability to its electorate and a socialist economical policy is the only effective counters thereto.

J. Nic

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Ingrid Blank
8 Jun

Mandatory Labelling of GMOs

I sent the following comments to the Secretary of Parliament and, as pointed out in my submission, will definitely lodge a complaint with the Human Rights Commission should they refuse to reinstate mandatory labelling in the Consumer Protection Bill.

As a citizen of this nation I hereby exercise my constitutional rights to a healthy environment and healthy food, the right of informed choice and consent and participation in decision-making processes relating to this contentious issue, the right to information and above all the individual

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Gavin Lloyd
24 Oct

GM foods - The Crime

Watch this and see why we need to know if we are eating GM foods.


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