01 February 2008

SA labelling of GM foods

In this article on genetically modified (GM) foods, DietDoc considers labelling issues and the potential effects on nature and consumers.

The South African labelling legislation on GM foods is intended to guide the labelling of foodstuffs that are significantly different from conventional products with regards to composition, nutritional value, and mode of storage, preparation or cooking, allergenicity or containing genes of human or animal origin.

The legislation specifies that if a foodstuff differs significantly from the conventional product, this must be specified on the label. If a GM food such as yellow maize has, however, been tested exhaustively for each important characteristic (nutritional value, allergenicity etc.) and it does not differ significantly from standard yellow maize, the label does not have to state that it is a GM food.

Example of the results of macronutrient analyses performed on non-GM and GM maize (results expressed per 100 g):

Nutrient Non-GM maize GM maize
Energy (kJ) 1718 1714
Protein (g) 12,8 13,1
Fat (g) 2,9 3,0
Carbohydrate (g) 82,7 82,4
Moisture (%) 12,0 12,4

(Food Safety & Nutrition Brochure)

It is evident that the differences in the analytical values are very small and that the macronutrient compositions of the non-GM and GM maize are, for all practical purposes, identical. In such a case, and if all the other characteristics such as allergenicity are identical, the GM maize would not have to be labelled as such.

For additional information about the labelling of GM foods, visit the SA Department of Health's website.

Pros and cons
Any process that changes the genetic makeup of staple crops can potentially have advantages and disadvantages. This is also true for GM foods.

Positive effects
GM crops are designed to have improved yields so that arable land is capable of producing larger harvests.

Many parts of the global village are battling with starvation, particularly in areas such as Africa, India, China and the Far East, due to ever-increasing populations and climatic change. A process such as genetic modification, which can increase crop production, will thus help to feed the populations of these countries.

Other GM processes, such as making a staple crop drought resistant, are also urgently required in the face of increasing drought and low rainfalls, which are associated with global warming.

Certain GM processes are designed to make crops resistant to fungal infections and insect pests. Such crops require smaller quantities of pesticides so that the entire area planted with GM crops can benefit from a lower exposure to pesticides. Fewer pesticides leach into ground water and human and animal exposure to pesticides is reduced.

Some GM processes such as the production of Golden Rice, where beta-carotene (the precursor of vitamin A) is introduced into rice (which does not contain any vitamin A), are designed to improve the nutritive content of these foods.

Vitamin A boosts immunity, especially in young children, and prevents diseases such as xerophthalmia, an eye disease that can cause blindness. In populations that are dependent on staple foods like rice, the addition of a nutrient such as vitamin A can have far-reaching positive effects on health. Golden rice is already being planted in the Far East.

Negative effects
The potential negative effects of GM foods are generally economically based.

For example, South Africa is having problems selling our maize to other countries in Africa because the latter refuse to import GM maize. The reason behind this refusal is not that other countries in Africa are scared of potential hazards associated with GM crops, but that their EU trading partners have forced them to do so.

Countries in Europe do not welcome any technology that will increase crop production. Europe produces more than enough food to feed its people and EU governments actually pay their farmers not to produce crops.

The EU is greatly opposed to GM crops for these economic reasons and has, therefore, enforced a ban on the importation of GM foods. Their trading partners in Africa have to toe the line and must consequently also refuse GM crops, despite the fact that their populations are in dire need of additional food.

Hopefully the move towards economic upliftment in Africa will assist in removing this type of restriction so that poor African countries can buy much needed maize and other staples from South Africa and the USA, which may or may not be GM. – (Dr Ingrid van Heerden, registered dietician, for Health24)

(References: AfricaBio (2004). Agricultural Biotechnology - Facts for Decision Makers, AfricaBio, Pretoria; Food Safety & Nutrition Brochure)


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