SA scientists explore health effects of GM foods

The Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Testing Facility at the University of the Free State is preparing to embark on major research on the health effects of GM crops. Professor Chris Viljoen who heads the facility - the only one of its kind in South Africa - made this announcement at a pubic talk about consumer choice which Biowatch South Africa organised on 29 March.

"We will be doing basic feeding trials using a variety of animals and existing, approved genetically modified (GM) crops," Viljoen said. "For example we're planning to use lambs from birth to death - one group will be fed GM maize and the other non-GM maize."

He said the feeding trials with animals should take about three years to complete. After the initial animal feeding trials the testing Facility would look at general allergic responses in humans.

Viljoen noted that studies of the GM crops which have been released and commercialised show there are no long-term negative impacts. He added: "But I don't consider those studies to be definitive. There are not enough studies and many scientists don't understand general concerns from the public. They take these concerns to mean that people are anti-science.

"Within the scientific community there isn't enough open debate because some scientists feel there is enough safety concerning GM and others feel there isn't.

"But the basic science that should be done (on this issue) has not been done. Science has left it up to the seed companies themselves," Viljoen said. He said his stance was to be "obtusely neutral" because he needed to do research which produced data which spoke for itself.

The motto of the University of the Free State's GMO Testing Facility is: "Serving public interest without serving interest groups".

GM crops have been in South Africa since 1997 and the Free State University's GMO Testing Facility has been monitoring food products for the past three years.

According to Viljoen: "Three years ago we battled to find any GM presence in the foods we tested. "But now the results of tests we conducted last year on soy and maize products show that 90% of soy products and 61% of maize products tested contained GMOs. That's despite South Africa only growing 50% of GM soy, 10%GM white maize and 24% of GM yellow maize."

He attributed the diffusion effect of GM in the food chain to lack of awareness among farmers of the need to separate GM and non-GM crops. But there is also a very low level of South African consumer awareness about GMOs. Possibly this is linked to limited scope for consumer preference because of the lack of regulations to provide for compulsory labeling of GM food.

However, South Africa is among eight countries in the world which are growing GM crops commercially. And in terms of worldwide distribution of the commercial growing of GM crops, South Africa ranks eighth, with about 1% of the country's agricultural land under GM crop cultivation.

Internationally, the countries which have mandatory labeling for GM are Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, China, the European Union, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan and Thailand. However, the percentage of GM presence which requires labeling differs. The European Union, Israel, Russia and Switzerland require mandatory labeling if foodstuffs contain 0.9% or more GM traces. In Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, China and Saudi Arabia the threshold is 1%. In South Korea it is 3% and in Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan and Thailand the threshold is 5%.

Canada and the United States of America have only voluntary labeling in the case of a GM trace of 5% or more.

South Africa has no compulsory labeling of GM products. Viljoen noted that the University of the Free State's GMO Testing Facility had specifically avoided looking for the presence of unapproved GM in South Africa, for example Bt10 maize which has an antibiotic resistant marker and which got mixed up with approved Bt11 maize shipments to Europe.

"But we would be happy to do such tests if we were contracted to do so," Viljoen said. The public discussion was the third which Biowatch South Africa has organised as part of its intention to raise awareness about GM crops. - Biowatch SA.


August 2006