From our friends at the African Centre for Biosafety (ACB):
The South African government took the deeply controversial decision to permit the genetic modification (GM) of our staple food, maize, in 1997. Three years later they also approved the cultivation of GM soya.
South African consumers have lobbied extensively for the labelling of GM food ever since, while the biotech and food industry have fought aggressively to keep consumers in the dark.
The Consumer Protection Act (CPA) of 2008 requires the mandatory labelling of GM foodstuffs and food producers were lawfully bound to start labelling from October 2011 after regulations to the Act came into force.
However, labelling started appearing haphazardly and incorrectly and when non-profit organisation, the African Centre for Biosafety (ACB), began testing products, they alerted the National Consumer Commission to the blatant non-compliance and inconsistency
that seemed to be creating even more confusion for consumers, as well as calling upon the Consumer Goods Council SA and the food companies involved to comply with the law. Industry responded that they were unable to label because the regulations were ambiguous.
In response to industry intransigence, the DTI published a set of amended regulations in October 2012 for comment, which clearly conveyed government’s intention that all foods containing 5% or more GM content must be labelled. This has still not been promulgated due to a powerful industry lobby that does not want consumers to know about the GM content in their food and have lobbied the DTI and Parliament with fallacious arguments that labelling will raise food
prices and cause a “food scare” that will lead to food insecurity.
They insist that it is only the producers of non-GM foods that should be obliged to label their food products as not containing GM. However, this approach is inconsistent with the provisions and spirit of the CPA, which requires labelling for the presence, not absence of GM, so the next prize for industry is to insist that manufactured foods with GM content should not be labelled, only the raw materials, such as maize kernels or soya beans. In other words, none of the food products on the shelves containing GM ingredients would be labelled.
In a desperate bid to appease the industry, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) held a stakeholder workshop on 25th July 2014 in Pretoria. In their opening remarks they thanked Africabio – who is spearheading the industry lobby – for their assistance and collaboration regarding identifying the stakeholders present. This apparent bias was strenuously objected to by the ACB, which noted the distinct lack of stakeholders present from GMO concern groups. The DTI
explained that their intention was to advertise the workshop to the public but they failed to do so because of logistical problems.
According to Haidee Swanby of the ACB, “the result was a process heavily dominated by the industry lobby, especially Africabio, whose sole purpose was to find a way to circumvent the good intentions of the CPA. Their arguments were based on insults about “the lunatic fringe” and false claims that a tiny minority funded by a “European lobby” was fuelling a demand for GM labelling. If their bully tactics work, South Africans will have no right to know that their staple food as well as most processed foods on our shelves are saturated with GM ingredients.”
Since 2012 the ACB has tested a variety of maize and soya based products as well as popular maize and bread brands to determine their GM content. The public has been incredulous about the high level of GM in their staple foods, for example, all major maize meal brands tested contained between 55% and 87% GM content, while the GM content in the
soya flour used in bread was found to be up to 91% GM. The labelling across these products was often absent, inconsistent or misleading, leaving consumers confused about whether or not these foods are in fact genetically modified. Campaign Officer at the ACB, Zakiyya Ismail said, “the food industry tells consumers they support the right to
know and to choose but behind closed doors they’ve banded together to continually stall implementation and lobby hard against GM labelling. The DTI needs to step in and act immediately to promulgate these long stalled regulations and fulfil the mandate of the CPA”.