South Africa is not an ideal country for crop production: less than 15% of its land is arable,
and there are serious climatic constraints such as periodic droughts, floods, etc. Despite
these circumstances, it has to achieve maximum productivity to provide food security for
its growing population.
- In the past, crop yield and quality has been significantly increased by procedures such
as selection and crossbreeding. But as our understanding of genetics has increased,
scientists have found ways of speeding up the process
- By means of genetic modification techniques, desirable characteristics can now be
incorporated into plants in a more accurate way
- Genetic modification allows us to grow better-quality crops with higher yields while
at the same time sustaining and protecting the environment, thereby providing a way
of meeting the growing demand for food without placing additional pressure on our
As with many new scientific innovations, genetic modification has generated debates
and has been subjected to sensational media coverage. The questions raised need clear
What is Genetic Modification?
A (GMO) means any organism; whose genes (or genetic material) have been modified in a
way that does not occur naturally through mating or natural recombination or both. (A gene
is a biological unit that determines an organisms inherited characteristics). An example of
a GMO is a plant that has been modified to contain a gene from a common soil bacterium
Bacillus thuringiensis, giving it a built-in resistance to the maize stalk borer, an insect that
attacks and destroys maize crops.
What are the benefits of genetic modification?
- Plants can be modified to increase their resistance to insects, diseases and other pests
that are capable of destroying or seriously damaging crops.
- This does not only result in increases in these crops yields, but also reduces the need for
- Reduced pesticide use implies decreased pollution and an increased safety for farm
workers and those living nearby, as well as less harm to animal life.
- Food quality is improved because there is less fungal infection, insect damage and
- In addition, less time and energy is spent in crop production.
- Plants can also be modified to have stress-tolerance qualities, improved taste and
appearances and better processing characteristics.
- Improvements can be made to nutritional qualities such as vitamin A, which can play
an important role in combating deficiency diseases in millions of people.
- Eliminating nutritional deficiency helps in promoting a healthy population and
Are genetically Modified (GM) foods safe to eat and how is human health rists assessed?
All GM Foods are thoroughly assessed during the developmental phase to ensure that they
are safe for animal and human consumption. This is done before they are made available
to the public. The safety assessments of GM foods are based on guidelines and principles
developed by Codex Alimentarius (Codex), an international body involved in food safety,
together with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organisation
(FAO) of the United Nations. Codex principles include the need for a case-by-case safety
assessment; the use of scientifi c risk- based assessment methods, consideration of newly
introduced genetic material, new proteins and other characteristics of the GM food,
consideration of intended and unintended eff ects of genetic modification, and a comparison
with conventionally produced foods. GM-foods that are on the market have been approved
by government, and are considered as safe as their conventional counterparts.
Should GM foods be labeled?
The Department of Health is responsible for the implementation of legislation governing
the labeling of GM foods and currently requires that a GM food be labelled if it differs
significantly in composition, nutritional value, or in mode of storage, preparation or cooking
from that of the corresponding existing foodstuff . The regulations also require a GM food to
be labeled as such if a plant-derived food contains genetic material derived from a human
or an animal, or if animal-derived food contains genetic material derived from a human or
from a different taxonomic animal family.
The information on the label is not a warning that these foods are unsafe. It is important to
realise that government declares these foods to be as safe as conventional foods before they
are released for human consumption. The label merely gives information on the ingredients
of the foodstuff or product as an internationally acceptable standard.
Will a human or animal that eats GM food become a GMO?
A human being or animal that eats a transgenic food product will not become a GMO. The
foreign gene in the GM food and the protein it produces, are digestible like many other
food proteins. To change the genetic make up of an organism, new DNA needs to be stably
inserted into its genetic material.
A common misconception amongst many is that only GM foods contain DNA. This is not so,
humans have been exposed to DNA from conventional crops, animals and their associated
micro-organisms for as long as we have been eating these products. So far, there is no
evidence that DNA from transgenic crops is dangerous to humans compared to the foods
they have been eating to date.
What are the issues of concern for the environment?
The major environmental concern is outcrossing, where genes from GM crops may become
established in conventional crops or closely related wild species. The process of outcrossing
is not unique to GM crops, but is a predictable process that will occur only among closely
related plant species that are growing in close proximity and flower at the same time.
All GM crops are thoroughly evaluated to assess the potential of outcrossing. The GMO Act
requires that GMO trials observe prescribed isolation distances from other crops. If safety
to the environment cannot be demonstrated, the product is not approved for trials or
Is genetic modification restricted to the food industry only?
No, there are many useful applications of genetic modification, especially in medicine
and health care. Medicines and vaccines are already being produced through genetic
modifi cation. Advances in molecular biology, immunisation, and genetic engineering
have revolutionised our understanding of diseases and their management. Globally there
are about 35-40 biotechnology-derived therapeutics and vaccines in use. One example is
insulin, which is widely used by diabetics.
Are GM foods assessed differently from conventional foods?
Generally, consumers consider conventional foods safe because they are familiar with them
and have been consuming these for a long time. When new foods are developed by natural
methods, some of the existing characteristics of foods can be altered, either in a positive
or negative way. Specific regulatory systems have been set up for the rigorous evaluation
of GM organisms and GM foods, because government is committed to ensuring access to
suffi cient, safe and nutritious food. These systems evaluate both human health and the
impact that these organisms can have on the environment.
Are there international safety requirements during the movement of GMOs?
Yes, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which is an international agreement that
aims to ensure an adequate level of protection in the field of the safe transfer, handling
and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology,
was established under the Convention of Biological Diversity. South Africa is Party
to this Protocol, which means the Department of Agriculture has to adhere to these
international safety standards when conducting activities involving GMOs.
How is the review process of GMOs in South Africa handled?
The Registrar for GMOs receives all applications for activities with GMOs. Once
he is satisfied that the application is compliant with the provisions of the GMO Act,
the application is forwarded to the Advisory Committee. Members of the Advisory
Committee are appointed by the Minister for Agriculture and Land Affairs and consist
of scientists who are experts in fields related to GMOs. This Committee evaluates
risk assessments (scientific data relating to food, feed and environmental impact)
submitted with every application. Based on the fi ndings of the Committee, the
application is recommended to the Executive Council for a decision. The general public
is also informed and consulted on intended activities related to GMOs by means of
notifications in major newspapers. Comments from the public are also considered in
the process of evaluating an application. This promotes credibility and transparency
in the regulatory process of GMOs.
The Executive Council is the decision-making body and consists of offi cials from six
government departments; Agriculture, Health, Environmental Affairs and Tourism,
Labour, Trade and Industry and Science and Technology, as well as the chairperson
of the Advisory Committee. If the Executive Council is satisfied that a certain activity
with a GMO may be conducted, the Registrar is authorised by the Council to issue the
The Act allows for anyone who feels aggrieved by a decision of the Council to appeal
to the Minister for Agriculture and Land Aff airs, who shall fi nally rule on the matter.
Lets talk about GMOs!
The Department of Agriculture would like to promote debates in the area of genetic
modification to enhance public understanding and stewardship in managing
agricultural biotechnology. Information and GMO statistics are updated continuously
on our website.
Comments and suggestions are welcomed, and members of the public can call the
numbers mentioned below.
Government has also established a forum for engaging in debates on biotechnology
through a programme called Public Understanding of Biotechnology (PUB) under the
Department of Science and Technology, website: http://www.pub.ac.za
Other Web sites
Convention on Biological Diversity
Food and Agriculturel Organization of the United Nations
World Health Organization
Department of Health
Department of Environmental Aff airs and Tourism (DEAT)
Department of Science and Technology
Public Understanding of Biotechnology (PUB)