GM foods and those who unleashed these "unnatural" behemoth are casting their evil eyes in South Africa and how far the regulatory agencies there will be able to resist these attempts is worth watching. While the compulsory labeling of GM foods can be considered as a success for the consumer protection efforts in that country, some loopholes provided in the legislation may neutralize these gains. Here is a take on the above developments in South Africa, considered a major testing ground in the continent for the GM lobbyists.
"Africa Centre for Biosafety director Mariam Mayet said last week that the 5 percent threshold was "very ambiguous and highly misleading", as it did not explain if it applied to single ingredients or the total contents of food products. The regulations say that if manufacturers cannot test for genetically modified organisms, then food can be labelled: "May contain genetically modified food", which gives them a convenient loophole. "This is contrary to the spirit of the new legislation, which is to provide consumers with adequate information," Mayet said. European trading partners only tolerated a 0.9 percent threshold, so it made sense to set South Africa's threshold at the same level to develop one segregation system for local and international foods, she said. The regulations only specify disclosure for maize, soya and canola. Other products would be excluded from labelling, giving consumers the impression they were buying food that was free of genetically modified organisms. "The Department of Trade and Industry must draft (legislation) in a clever way so it covers future crops," Mayet said. Genetically modified salmon has been approved in the US and there have been attempts to register genetically modified potatoes in South Africa. But Mayet said the department should be applauded for pushing ahead with greater disclosure of genetically modified content in food. "Our concern is about the growing dominance of a small number of seed companies, which are increasing control over food production." Three of the largest genetic engineering companies operate in South Africa: Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred (a subsidiary of DuPont) and Syngenta".
The right of the consumer to know about the nature of foods being bought in the market cannot be usurped or by-passed by the regulators whatever be the pretext and hence the compulsory labeling provision deserves to be applauded. The limit of 5% prescribed for the GM version that can be present in normal foods is some what arbitrary and if one goes by contemporary practices in vogue, more appropriate would have been some thing like 0.5%. Why the new labeling provision is restricted to only three crops defies logic and a more appropriate action could have been to apply the standards across the entire food chain. One can only hope that better sense will prevail eventually amongst the policy makers.