The GMO controversy is a dispute over the comparative advantages and disadvantages of genetically modified food, genetically modified crops used to produce food and other uses of genetically modified organisms in food production. The debate involves all strata of society – consumers, biotech companies, government regulators, NGO’s and scientists. The main areas of discussion are whether GM food should be labelled, the effect of GM crops on health and the environment, the effect on pesticide and herbicide resistance, the impact of GM crops for farmers, and the role of GM crops in feeding the growing world population.
The aspect which should first and foremost be considered is whether GM-derived food poses a health risk to consumers. Amongst the scientific community there seemed to be, until recently, broad agreement that there is no greater health risk from GM-derived food than from conventionally produced food. However this is questioned by advocacy groups who believe that GM-derived foods have not been around long enough for the longer term effects to be established. They also believe that tests conducted showing the safety of GM-derived foods have not been of sufficient duration; a period of ninety days has been mentioned! The same advocacy groups have also questioned the objectivity of the regulatory authorities when approving GM-derived foodstuffs in places such as the USA where the power and greed of the biotech companies come into play. According to the American Academy of Environmental Medicine “several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM foods”. GE foods have been linked to infertility, GI issues, organ damage, insulin and immune dysfunction and death. Thousands of sheep, buffalo and goats grazing on GE cotton in India have died.”
GM crops currently account for twenty nine percent of crop production worldwide, with the USA growing fifty nine percent of global GM crops; Argentine at twenty percent and so on down the list of Canada, Brazil, China, Paraguay and India until we get closer to home (and from where a lot of our foodstuffs come,) South Africa at one percent of global GM crops.
Just four countries on the African continent allow GM crops to be grown commercially – South Africa, Egypt, Burkina Faso and Sudan. As recently as 2008, South Africa was the only African country which allowed it and the majority of soya beans and maize grown in South Africa is genetically modified, making it the only country in the world where the staple food is a GMO. A recent study (in South Africa) of fifty eight off-the-shelf randomly selected food products found that seventy six percent of them tested positive for GM. These included infant and baby cereals, breakfast cereals and porridges. There are no labelling requirements for GM-derived food in South Africa, as well as very little consumer awareness despite GM crops being grown commercially since 1997.
The labelling of GM-derived foods does not have any bearing on whether GM-derived foods are safe to eat or not. Rather, transparency through labelling gives the consumer the power to decide what kind of foods are served on their dinner tables. Over 60 countries around the world have regulations concerning the labelling of foods produced using GM products.
Actual labelling modalities, however, are complicated with issues such as feasibility, legal responsibilities, coherence and standardisation in mind. But there are some basic principles which must be applied:
– if genetically modified plants or microorganisms have been used in production, this must be clearly indicated.
– in products such as meat, eggs and milk, if the animals have been fed GM-derived stockfeed, such products should be labelled accordingly
– when the need for GMO labelling a product has been determined, the wording and placing of this label must be very specific and the label should be highly visible.
– labelling should also required for foods which are offered by restaurants, takeaways or other dispensers of prepared foodstuffs.
The issue of labelling and indeed anything to do with GM-derived products would be dealt with in Zambia under the Biosafety Act (which was enacted in 2007) under the watchful eye of the National Biosafety Authority, the board of which was finally put in place in July this year. It is early days yet to make a judgement on how this Authority is going to perform. As the arm of Government that is charged with ensuring the safety of Zambians from any harmful effects that may arise from GMO’s, they have a big task ahead of them. Whilst the controversy rages regarding the safety of GM-derived food, a good start would be to put in place requirements for labelling of any products which contain GMO’s so that Zambians can make their own choices.