“In 2002 without being told, South Africans became the first people in the world to eat genetically engineered white maize.” (Biowatch, April 2004).  

WOW! I thought when I first read this, we’re up there with the world leaders!!  Then a small voice questioned why South Africa was playing a leadership role, when Europe is so anti GM crops?  To some of you this is old news, to others, (I think) you need to know that GM crops have arrived in South Africa and are now likely to be a common ingredient in your food.  Is this good or bad?  I believe it is BAD and have written my reasoning down to better formulate my own opinion.  Why inflict it on you – because growing awareness is the first stage in taking action. 

He who pays the piper calls the tunes!

It is easy to become bogged down in the contradictory arguments regarding the health risks in the debate about genetically modified food.  I do not find it comforting to know that most genetech scientists either work for genetech companies or for public research institutions with funding from the genetech industry, so they have a vested interest in supporting the industry.  Negative stories that do get published, such as Dr. Puzstai’s findings that mice fed GM potatoes developed birth defects, are quickly quashed or withdrawn without a genuinely independent scientific hearing.  Health risks are important, but they are only a part of a the big picture.  Read the literature and it becomes clear that the key issues are money and control.  Nothing new about that.  But this time, the control is over the primary production of staple foods. 

Farmers have hybridized plants and animals for 1000s of years – what’s different?

Humans have consciously been modifying the genetic make up of plants and animals for thousands of years by managing the process of who mates with/pollinates whom.  So what is the big deal?  Today, scientists do it differently. They use viruses and bacteria as agents to infect plants and animals with foreign genes.  Which is how rat genes which supposedly synthesize vitamin C, for a `healthier’ salad, get into GM lettuce.  (Bad news for vegetarians.)  In the case of the GM maize and cotton grown in South Africa a soil bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is the agent.  It has the ability to enter and infect plant cells.  Scientists replace some of the genes in the bacterial DNA with a new suite of genes extracted from yet other organisms.  The genetically modified Bt acts as a hijacker working for the scientists and transfers so called `transgenes’ into the target plant.  Transgenes are designed to give plants a variety of new attributes, e.g. drought resistance, insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, vitamin synthesis, etc.  The Bt 11 maize and Bt Cotton grown in South Africa and the proposed BT wheat are infected with genes which produce poisonous proteins which act as insecticides.  

Scientists on both sides of the GM food debate, acknowledge that tampering with the genetic makeup of an organism may result in the formation of new allergens and new toxins.  This can happen because genes do not have unique and dedicated jobs as was previously believed.  They can, and do, change their job description depending on the other genes and proteins in their metabolic environment.  Did you know that some of the DNA in the food we eat is absorbed by cells in the lining of the digestive tract.  A study in Europe found that rabbit DNA was found in the blood of people who recently ate rabbit?  The DNA in conventional foodstuff has passed the evolutionary test of time, but GM `food’ is too recent to have passed any responsible test of time.  Do you want to be a guinea pig for the Genetech industry? 

Run-away genetically modified genes contaminate conventional crops

There is also a risk to the environment as a result of cross pollination between GM plants in commercial production and the wild relatives of commercial crops.  Once in the field, it is difficult, if not impossible, to recall transgenes which spread through pollen dispersal. E.g: herbicide resistant super weeds are now growing in Canada.  They `evolved’ as a result of the cross pollination of the weed relatives of canola with herbicide resistant GM canola.  The Genetech industry lays the blame on bad farming practice, ie it is not their responsibility.  In addition, farmers who opted to stay with conventional crops found that their crops became contaminated with `transgenes’ spread by pollen from GM crops on neighbouring farms.  They lost revenue as they could no longer sell their crops as GM free and / or Eco-friendly.  Once again industry accepted no liability, so the farmers were forced to join forces in a costly legal battle for compensation from Monsanto and Bayer. 

Europeans say No! so Monsanto & Co. look south

In Europe, polls show that consumers do not want GM food.  With enough to eat, Europeans can focus on what they eat. Eco-farming is in, GM crops are out!  There, a strong consumer lobby has ensured that the anti-GM viewpoint is well aired and that the right to choose products free of GM organisms is entrenched in food labeling. 

In South Africa we do not have the luxury of a food surplus, but this is no reason to take the right to choose what we eat from us.  Here food labeling has lagged behind the sale of GM food and although it became a legal requirement to label food with GMO content in 2011, many staples containing GMOs still have not been labeled.  Julian Edwards, Director General of Consumers International puts it well: One of the ironies is the enthusiasm of 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.”  

In an article entitled “Biosafety takes a back seat to commercial interests in SA”, Biowatch SA reports that the first GM crops were planted before the legal framework to ensure human and environmental safety was in place.  It appears that the SA government, supported by big players such as Monsanto is actively promoting GM crops as part of our agricultural future and the Genetech industry is using South Africa to get a foothold into the African market.  “South Africa’s uptake of GM products is one of the fastest in the world.”  (Biowatch: Booklet 4)

It is not all bad news.  Over 40 organizations, including worker’s and farmers unions, churches, consumer groups, a range of NGOs and academic institutions have denounced growing GM crops in South Africa.  Consumer resistance has kept GM products largely out of Europe and Japan.  Scandals in the US as a result of GM maize and soya for animal feed getting into products on supermarket shelves is waking up some Americans.  South Africans need to put pressure on retailers (Pick n Pay, Fruit and Veg City, Spar, Shoprite, Checkers, Woolworths etc) to label food so that consumers can exercise their right to choose We also need to lobby suppliers of maize meal, wheat and cotton oil to commit themselves to a GM free product range.  Organizations such as the African Centre for Biosafety, Biowatch and SAFeAGE (SA Freeze Alliance on Genetic Engineering) are challenging permits for new GM crops and lobbying for GM free foods – but they need the support of consumers.  The new consumer act of 2011 requires that food with a GMO content is labeled – but many suppliers have not implemented the legislation.  If MacDonalds, that bastion of fast food, feels the need to guarantee its customers in the USA that its chips are free of GMO’s, then we have to believe in the power of the consumer!  It is up to us. 

To take action to promote labeling of GMOs go to: http://scenicsouth.co.za//2012/03/high-genetically-modified-maize-soya-content-in-food/

Recommended background reading:  The seeds of neo-colonialism: Genetic engineering in food and farming, by Elfrieda Pschorn-Straus and Rachel Wynberg. (pub) Biowatch SA together with GroundWork.