Andreas Späth

Frankenfood labels

2011-05-11 08:06

Andreas Späth

October 1 will be an interesting day for South Africans. It’s the date from which the new Consumer Protection Act requires producers, packagers and importers of food to label products according to their content of genetically modified (GM) ingredients. Saffers who love the stuff can finally stock-up on GM-rich goodies with confidence, while those who’d rather not will be empowered to avoid them.

After many years of lobbying for labelling this is a clear victory for consumer rights and organisations such as SAFeAGE, Biowatch and the African Centre for Biosafety that have been leading the fight. But there will also be plenty of confusion since we may expect to see as many as five different types of GM-related labels on products:

• Food produced directly from GMO (genetically modified organism) sources has to be labelled “produced using genetic modification”;

• products with a GM-content of 5% or more have to be labelled “containing GMOs”;

• where industry can show that testing for GM-content is impractical or not feasible, expect to see “may contain GMOs”;

• items with a GM-content between 1 and 4.9% may carry a voluntary label reading “GM content is less than 5%”; and

• if the GM-content is 0.9% or less a voluntary label saying “does not contain GMOs” may be used.

I can already see myself spending an eternity in front of supermarket shelves trying to figure out which is the least offensive breakfast cereal on offer.

Of course the good folks in the biotech industry - the people who are responsible for the plethora of GM seeds and crops out there - tell us that all the hype is, well, just that, hype, and that their products are perfectly safe. In that case, surely, they should have been champing at the bit to get big fat stickers proclaiming “full of GMOs” on every packet of corn chips on the market instead of fighting labelling legislation for years.

The simple fact is that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to suggest that GMOs are not nearly as harmless or beneficial to the health of either humans or the environment as the industry would have us believe. For one, the vast majority of assertions that GMOs are safe come from the biotech companies themselves. GMO giants like Monsanto and Syngenta place severe restrictions on any independent examinations of their products.

In January veteran US scientist Don M Huber, Professor Emeritus at Purdue University and co-ordinator for the US Department of Agriculture’s National Plant Disease Recovery System, raised alarm over a newly discovered microscopic organism found in high concentrations in certain GM crops and in association with glyphosate (Roundup), a herbicide very widely used in conjunction with these crops.

He notes that this new pathogen “appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals, and probably human beings”, having been shown to cause infertility and miscarriages in “a wide variety of livestock”. Huber asked US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to place a moratorium on the sale and planting of so-called Roundup-Ready GM crops to allow a multi-agency investigation into the micro-organism and the US Environmental Protection Agency is now investigating whether or not glyphosate should be taken off the market.

A paper published in March reviews 19 studies in which rats and mice were fed on GM maize and soy and suggests that the animals’ diet resulted in an increased risk of kidney and liver problems and may have negatively affected other organs, including the heart and spleen as well as blood cells. The authors argue that current testing programmes are not long enough to evaluate the long term effects of a GM diet on human health, a state of affairs they consider “socially unacceptable in terms of consumer health protection”.

Does the prospect of GMO labels on our food products - confusing or not - fill me with happiness? Yes, in moderation. I’d rather not have any GMOs in South Africa at all, mind you, but at least this way I’ll have some say in whether or not my family and I will participate in the unofficial long-term study on their human health effects that the biotech industry is hell-bent on subjecting us to.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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