Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or more correctly Genetically Engineered Food, is making its way in significant quantities into everyday food staples such as bread, margarine, tinned fish in cottonseed oil, breakfast cereals, maize meal, soya products and baby food. GMOs are also ‘hidden’ as stabilisers, thickeners and bulking agents in products from yoghurt to vitamin tablets. At present Woolworths, Pick n Pay, Shoprite, Spar, Checkers and even health shops still sell unlabelled genetically modified food.
For most city people the supermarkets, with their neat stalls of fresh food set against poster images of dewy orchards or green fields with happy looking cows, have replaced local farmers’ markets. The industrialisation of farming and food processing has brought down food prices and made a range of food more accessible. However, the convenience of supermarket food has many hidden costs.
I believe the way that GM or GE food has arrived on our plates – whether we choose it or not – is one of those costs, specifically because local consumers have had very little say regarding the introduction of GE food in South Africa. It has not been a democratic process! For me the ease with which GE food is being mainstreamed into our diet largely without our knowledge, in spite of increasing public concern regarding the health risks and without being consistently labelled as a GMO, raises alarm bells regarding the role of supermarkets as distributors of good food.
What are GMOs or GE Food?
First, a quick clarification of the terms Genetically Modified (GM) and Genetically Engineered (GE) food. Agri-chemical companies, such as Monsanto, involved in the genetic manipulation of food crops, have popularised the terms, “GM food” or “contains GM Organisms.” This sounds like a gentle modification of food crops in keeping with thousands of years of hybridising related plants to create new improved strains. In reality, the process used to produce GM ‘hybrids’ involves genetically engineering a seed nucleus to accept a parcel of genetic material from an unrelated species – often a bacterium or virus. The technique to achieve this is so distinct from natural hybridisation that it takes place in a laboratory. The result is an unnatural modification that would not occur in nature! It is so different that an International Protocol on Biosafety was developed under the UN because there was no global scientific consensus on the long term safety.
“One of the ironies, is the enthusiasm of GM food producers to claim that their biologically engineered products are different and unique when they seek to patent them and their similar enthusiasm for claiming that they are the same as other foods when asked to label them.” Julian Edwards, Director General of Consumers International.
Supermarkets say it is the Government’s responsibility to regulate for food safety and GMOs are legal!
It is undeniably the Government’s responsibility to ensure food safety and therefore to independently review the health and environmental safety of GM / GE food. The producers of foods containing GMOs should also carry a responsibility for ensuring their products are safe – even if the ingredients (GM maize, soya, cotton etc.) are legally grown in South Africa. This begs the question: should supermarkets also carry a responsibility themselves for ensuring that what they stock and sell has no health risk and is labelled to support consumer choice? I believe they share the responsibility.
As the big supermarkets and retailers such as Checkers, Shoprite, Woolworths, Spar and PnP have professional food technologists, they should be qualified to review the growing body of independent evidence about health risks associated with GM food. As significant suppliers of food they should also be taking note of questions from respected sources such as the African Center for Biosafety (ACB) that consistently raise issues about the independence and transparency of the process of declaring GM / GE food safe!! The issues are not just the long term health risks associated with GE food but also about the herbicides used on GMO crops which are in the process of being banned in Europe. It should be the business of supermarkets to be aware of the concerns about health risk and once aware it is their responsibility to be pro-active. For a summary of the process of testing GMOs for food safety see appendix 1 (below). For extracts from the big supermarkets on GMOs and labelling scroll down.
The South African government opened the door to GE food by approving the large uptake for agriculture of GM maize, our staple crop. True, this was done before our food producers and retailers had a chance to ensure that systems of traceability, independent food safety testing, labelling and reliable access to non-GM varieties of crops were in place. However, in the EU a more sophisticated and informed market insisted on a moratorium on GM crops and food until these systems were in place and the right to choose was genuine i.e. based on labelling and the availability of affordable non GE food. In South Africa it has been up to concerned and informed consumers and NGOs to prod the food industry into action. (e.g. Tiger Brands decided to go GM-free with their Purity baby foods in response to consumer demand.)
Have supermarkets in South Africa been sitting on the fence?
It is my opinion that supermarkets have not been proactive either in ensuring alternatives to GE Food or in informing customers about foods that are GE. Even health stores sell GE Food and have been slow to label ‘contains GMOs’. So inevitably, GE food has crept unnoticed by the majority of shoppers into our trolleys and onto our plates. As 90% of both South African commercial maize and soya, and 100% of cotton (and cotton seed oil) is genetically engineered, this means that almost without exception, food made with soya, maize, cotton seed oil and imported canola oil, is Genetically Engineered – unless it is labelled as free of GMOs. (Kelloggs Cornflakes are GM FREE – a notable exception). Just because many of us have already eaten GE food without noticing short term health implications – does not mean that we would choose to continue eating GE food – if we had the choice. Sadly many South Africans may not be able to afford Certified GE free maize and soya, which is typically more expensive because it is has to be imported from a supplier who can verify its GE free source.
Although the legislation requiring the labelling of food containing GMOs was passed almost 2 years ago, the specific wording to be used on the labels is being contested by producers and supermarkets. As a result, they have delayed the introduction of GMO labelling. Finally, and apparently in response to consumer pressure, supermarkets and their suppliers are coming out of the closet and starting to label products where the main ingredients are GMOs. These initial labels are often tentative using the words “May contain GMOs” or “May be GM.” They almost sound like the warning that a nut may accidentally have slipped into your milk chocolate bar – hardly analogous with the mainstreaming of GMOs into our staple food!!
What do Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Spar, Shoprite, Checkers say regarding GE food?
It has taken two months of phoning and emailing senior managers, customer care or food technologists at Spar, Shoprite, Checkers, Pick n Pay and Woolworths to get a sense of their stance on GM food and food safety. Read extracts of their responses below. In summary, the supermarkets acknowledge the need to label but this stand is based on giving customers the right to choose and is not a statement about the health risk or not of eating GE food. They referred me to South African Government Departments, WHO and to the Consumer Goods Council of SA to answer my queries about health risks and testing. Regarding their response to comprehensive labelling of GE food, the supermarkets claim to be waiting for clarity from the authorities, even though we have had GMO content in our food for over 10 years.
Woolworths is the only supermarket I am aware of that took a precautionary stand when in 1999 Woolworths committed itself to “remove or replace ingredients derived from genetically modified crop sources where we can, or else label the final products. Woollies GM policy applies to Woollies branded product only, not national brands.” Correspondence from Woolworths Customer Care 25 May, 2013. Notwithstanding this public commitment, GE maize and soy is in many Woolworths foods including bread and the actual implementation of labelling is slow and often imprecise. This situation is an indication of the problems created by the Government in legalising the GE crops before systems of traceability, independent food safety testing and labelling were in place but also of the weak response of supermarkets and the Consumer Goods Council to South African consumers concerns.
Pick n Pay
“Food safety is our number 1 concern. While Pick n Pay does not control how long it will take to arrive at a nationwide standard on GMO labelling, you can be assured that your health and safety is our key concern. Every single one of our PnP-branded suppliers were audited on food safety in 2012 and this remains an ongoing commitment. Our food safety standards apply to all products, including GMO maize and soy. Legally, all GMO ingredients in products sold in our stores must comply with the strict SA Genetically Modified Organisms Act… Government has set up a forum for engaging in conversations on biotechnology. Engage and share your comments on www.pub.ac.za.” Extract from official PnP statement on GMOs. While the audit on food safety of PnP brands sounds encouraging, it is not at all clear and is unlikely that PnP looked at independent studies regarding health risk in the case of GE maize and soy .
Shoprite and Checkers
“The Shoprite group’s position on products containing GM ingredients is that such products should be properly labelled to allow consumers to make informed choices. We will only stock products that are available in the market legally and in accordance with applicable labelling regulations. We are not in a position to do independent research or assessments into genetic modification, but we do keep abreast of developments in this regard through our membership of the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa’s (CGCSA) Food Safety Initiative (FSI) that is actively involved in discussions with relevant stakeholders, including the industry and relevant government departments, about GM products and labelling regulations.” Correspondence from Corporate Communications Shoprite, who I was informed also speaks for Checkers. I followed up with the FSI and was referred to the Dept of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries and to the Registrar of GMOs Act for information about how GMOs are tested and approved to safety in South Africa.
A Spar food technologist stated that Spar has no specific policy for or against GMO content in food and that it is the customers right to decide. When asked about labelling so that the customer could make an informed decision, the response was that SPAR had started labelling their own brands and would comply with the labelling regulations as soon as there was clarity from government.
I believe that supermarkets and retailers need to see themselves as part of the food chain with responsibilities for health and food security and not just distributors of legal produce. What can we as concerned consumers do: Those of us who do not want to be the guinea pigs of the biotech food industry, need to buy non GE products so that the non GE foods keep market share and remain available to us. My kids now eat Kelloggs Cornflakes (not Bokomo) instead of Pronutro which has GE maize and soy. We also need to challenge the supermarkets and food producers such as Tiger Brands, Bokomo, Premier Foods etc., to provide affordable GE free alternatives especially for traditional staples. The Food Safety Initiative is an industry initiative so we would need to challenge our supermarkets to make our concerns about GE food health risks, labelling and the need for non GE maize, soy and cotton seed oil a priority on the FSI agenda. Finally support independent organisations such as the African Center for Biosafety (ACB) that are investigating the food safety and security aspects of GE crops and Sign the ACB petition calling for urgent Parliamentary hearing on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and transparent review of risk assessment procedures and public participation in GMO decision making. Click here to go to PETITION.
KimK July 2013
POSTER Extract Info: The photo strip in the article comes from a poster produced for the Dept of Science and Technology. To see the full poster go to: www.pub.ac.za/pdfs/poster_gmcrops.pdf
FOOD FREE OF GE / GMOs: Fry’s Soya products, MA Milk Alternative, fresh sweetcorn & popcorn. Find out what foods are free of GE food in South Africa go to: https://www.facebook.com/SafeToEatCapeTown
HEALTH RISKS of GE/GMOs: To read about independent scientists on the dangers of GE food go to: http://countdowntogmreview.wordpress.com/2007/05/19/scientists-on-the-dangers-of-gm/
RISKS to FOOD SECURITY: To read about the risks to food security as a result of GE crops go to: Findings that GE crops in the USA have lower yields that conventional varieties in Europe. http://www.alternet.org/food/why-monsanto-wrong-about-gm-crop-promises
Appendix 1 GMO Food safety testing (information from the African Center for Biosafety)
There is no independent food safety testing. The way it works is the producer of the GMO (e.g. Monsanto ) submits an application to our government for approval of a new GMO. This application goes to the Executive Council (EC): GMO Act, which is made up of members from 12 departments including health, environment, agriculture, trade. There is an advisory council, a body of experts appointed by government who will look over the application and advise the EC on technical concerns. We have applied for the names of these experts but have been told that this information is confidential. We strongly suspect there could be conflict of interest here.
So basically, Monsanto is required to submit their research data and a decision will be based on this. The public is invited to comment (if we are lucky enough to see a public notice in the paper calling for comment). We apply for the safety data and receive a “confidential business information deleted” copy. A lot of the data is missing, the level of science is not generally publishable in peer reviewed journals. The majority of safety testing to date has been carried out on non-mammals – birds and fish, and then there is testing on rats and mice – 90 days usually the maximum.
The concept of “substantial equivalence” is an American concept which makes the assumption that GE and non GE crops are the same in every respect except for the trait that has been engineered into it. So, as the resulting GM Maize is substantially similar to its natural counterpart, a low level of testing is considered sufficient because there is an assumption of safety. “This concept didn’t come about through scientific inquiry – it was a great coup on the part of the biotech industry to get the Food and Drug Administration (USA) to accept this as truth.” Spokesperson for the African Center of Biosafety.(ACB) Furthermore, if these genetically modified seeds are substantially equivalent to conventional seeds, why the need to patent them? The patent surely reflects the difference, irrespective of its perceived value.