The debate about genetically modified (GM) foods continues. In South Africa, where we have been producing GM food commercially for 10 years and have about 60% of arable land planted to crops, two concerns still remain – labelling and health.
On 6 May and 7 May, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) briefed Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Trade and and the Select on Economic and Foreign Affairs on the Consumer Protection Bill. It aims to abolish outdated and discriminatory laws
to protect consumers.
While the original draft required the compulsory labelling of food, this latest draft makes no mention of that requirement. the issue of labelling would be contained in the GMO Amendment Act, as well as its draft regulations, which were published for public comment on 28 March 2008, but in which this issue did not appear.“I don’t like it,” said ANC MP Muntukayise Bhekuyise Ntuli. “Don’t you think we need to look at labelling food?
Aren’t we supposed to label so that people know what they are buying?” But according to research by a Michigan State University student of human nutrition and dietetics, Steven Couch, local consumers don’t know how to read food labels.
He is doing a project about SA consumers’ perceptions about biotechnology and how it is communicated and said that in the impromptu studies he has conducted, he found that very few people were able to interpret the information on local products’ labels.
While this may be true, many groups, including Biowatch South Africa, still believe that consumers should have the right to choose whether or not they’d like to consume foods containing GM ingredients.
Consuela Madera, CEO of Monsanto Europe and said that while her company was not against compulsory labelling, there was a “stigma” attached to labelling foods containing ingredients. “It’s a philosophical thing because people will have the misconception that because food is labelled GM, it’s unhealthy,” she said.
According to John Purcell, global technical manager of cotton for Monsanto, labelling requires that foods are traced right from the farm to fork. “The extra cost of doing this would be astronomical,” he pointed out. “And who would pay for it along the supply chain?”
But Biowatch director Leslie Liddell responded that she did not know what costs he was referring to as firstly, “no concrete studies have been conducted”, and secondly, any costs incurred should be carried by the producers of GMOs.“As in the case where cigarette companies carry the costs for health warnings on their packaging, so should the companies,” said Liddell. “Instead, they imply that the user should be liable for the cost of labelling and not the producers.
”While Madera said that no adverse health effects had been reported in terms of food containing ingredients in the last 10 years, Liddell remained adamant that such statements carried very little weight. “No long-term studies have been conducted and the tests on the health implications caused by GM foods are not independent,” she said, adding that because there is no traceability when and non-maize is mixed at the mill, there is no way of knowing whether GM foods are safe for human consumption or not. – David Steynberg