GMOs. To label or not

How often do we think about food labelling? What are the types of things we look out for? People with allergies have to be more vigilant about reading labels. “May contain peanuts” and ”Gluten free” are amongst the most common labels that consumers look out for. The socially and environmentally conscious may check for labels such as “Fair Trade Certified” (http://www.fairtradeafrica.net). As genetically modified organisms (GMOs) increasingly make their way into our food supplies, there have been calls for GMO food labelling. Legislation on GM labelling varies between countries, as does the level of compliance with legislation.

In a country like South Africa, where GM maize is produced on a commercial scale, majority of the population consumes it in the form of maize meal (pap), breakfast cereals, and other maize/corn containing products. The GM maize grown in South Africa has been modified to contain the Bt gene, which makes plants resistant to certain insect pests. The Bt gene encodes the Bt protein that in turn poisons insect pests when they try to feed on the plant. This consequently reduces the need for insecticide use.

The Consumer Protection Act (2008), which came into effect in 2011, stipulates that food producers, importers and packagers must label food products containing more than 5% GMOs, and the levels must be reported. Labelling may fall into one of two categories, mandatory or voluntary labelling (Table 1).

MANDATORY LABELLING
Conditions for labellingFood label
GM content greater than 5%Contains GMOs
Food is directly produced from a GM source so no testing is required Produced using genetic modification
When it is scientifically impractical to test for GM content May contain GMOs
VOLUNTARY LABELLING
GM content is between 1% and 5%
GM content is less than 1%
GM food labelling regulations in South Africa – Derived from 2008 Consumer Protection Act (2008).

It is also important to note that certain labels are prohibited: “GM free, no GMO, GMO free, biotech free, non GM”. These labels are only permitted if it has been scientifically proven that the GM content is less than 1%. In other countries, the aforementioned labels are altogether prohibited.

It is all very well to have legislation in place, but what is the level of compliance and do consumers actually pay attention to GM labels? Some major South African food brands that label their products as containing GMOs are Sasko, Bokomo (Pioneer) and IWISA (Premier). However, according to the African Centre for Biosafety (ACBIO), compliance by most major food brands is still low. They tested some popular brands and detected high levels of GM content in products that were unlabelled.

There are various reasons why people may be for and against GM labelling of foods. Pro-GMO labelling people believe that mandatory labelling is required so that consumers may make informed choices about their diet. On the surface, the “right to know” sounds fair in a “free” society. Furthermore given the controversies surrounding GMOs some people would like the right to choose. There would be an even stronger case for mandatory GM labelling if GM foods were in fact harmful, but that has not been proven. In fact GM foods have been tested for allergens and toxins and they contain neither.

Pushes for mandatory food labelling most often come from factions pushing for organic food as a healthier choice. This “healthier” food choice of course comes with a price tag and as such is marketed as a lifestyle choice that only the affluent can afford. What message does this subliminally send to the average consumer? Labelling foods as GM may give the false impression that the food may be harmful. There have been reported concerns about the impact that GMO labelling will have on consumer practices. Entire upmarket food chains and food product ranges are being marketed around their products being organic and free of GMOs. Yet organic and GMOs are not opposites. Organic means that the food was grown or produced free from the use of pesticides and hormones. Consumers should be aware that even if food is labelled as organic, it is not necessarily healthier. GM foods and organic foods have the same nutritional content, except in cases such as Golden Rice, where they have been purposefully engineered to be higher in a specific nutrient.

If we are labelling GM foods in the name of giving people “the right to know”, is it not logical that medicines and vaccines produced using GM and other biotechnological processes be also labelled? Would diabetics stop taking insulin because it is genetically engineered? Would people stop infertility treatments because genetically engineered human growth hormones are used? A culture of fear mongering exists amongst those who are against biotechnology.

Elsewhere in the world, major debates are still taking place as to whether or not food products should be labelled as containing GMOs. Some states in the US have rejected mandatory GMO labelling, while others are still debating the issue. Some food companies are even phasing out the use of GMOs altogether because they fear that mandatory labelling will negatively affect their brand. A major food chain in the US, Campbell’s, has in a bold move, volunteered to label their products as containing GMOs. They have a website (http://www.whatsinmyfood.com/the-choices-behind-our-food/) with extensive details on exactly what their products contain and the scientific reasoning behind their choices. They also provide links to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), lending credibility to their safety claims. Those who would still want to enjoy Campbell’s products without any GM have the option of some organic products in their range.

It is still early days in Africa, with regards to mandatory GM food labelling, with only Kenya and South Africa having legislation. This is in spite of GM Even though GM products are being consumed.