Biosafety (Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO))





What is Genetic Modification?

A (GMO) means any organism; whose genes (or genetic material) have been modified in a way that does not occur naturally through mating or natural recombination or both. (A gene is a biological unit that determines an organism's inherited characteristics). An example of a GMO is a plant that has been modified to contain a gene from a common soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis , giving it a built-in resistance to the maize stalk borer, an insect that attacks and destroys maize crops.

What are the benefits of genetic modification?

  • Plants can be modified to increase their resistance to insects, diseases and other pests that are capable of destroying or seriously damaging crops.
  • This does not only result in increases in these crops' yields, but also reduces the need for using pesticides.
  • Reduced pesticide use implies decreased pollution and an increased safety for farm workers and those living nearby, as well as less harm to animal life.
  • Food quality is improved because there is less fungal infection, insect damage and residual pesticide.
  • In addition, less time and energy is spent in crop production.
  • Plants can also be modified to have stress-tolerance qualities, improved taste and appearances and better processing characteristics.
  • Improvements can be made to nutritional qualities such as vitamin A, which can play an important role in combating deficiency diseases in millions of people.
  • Eliminating nutritional deficiency helps in promoting a healthy population and productivity.

Are genetically Modified (GM) foods safe to eat and how is human health risks assessed?

All GM Foods are thoroughly assessed during the developmental phase to ensure that they are safe for animal and human consumption. This is done before they are made available to the public. The safety assessments of GM foods are based on guidelines and principles developed by Codex Alimentarius (Codex), an international body involved in food safety, together with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. Codex principles include the need for a case-by-case safety assessment; the use of scientific risk- based assessment methods, consideration of newly introduced genetic material, new proteins and other characteristics of the GM food, consideration of intended and unintended effects of genetic modification, and a comparison with conventionally produced foods. GM-foods that are on the market have been approved by government, and are considered as safe as their conventional counterparts.

Should GM foods be labeled?

The Department of Health is responsible for the implementation of legislation governing the labeling of GM foods and currently requires that a GM food be labeled if it differs significantly in composition, nutritional value, or in mode of storage, preparation or cooking from that of the corresponding existing foodstuff. The regulations also require a GM food to be labeled as such if a plant-derived food contains genetic material derived from a human or an animal, or if animal-derived food contains genetic material derived from a human or from a different taxonomic animal family.

The information on the label is not a warning that these foods are unsafe. It is important to realise that government declares these foods to be as safe as conventional foods before they are released for human consumption. The label merely gives information on the ingredients of the foodstuff or product as an internationally acceptable standard

Will a human or animal that eats GM food become a GMO?

A human being or animal that eats a transgenic food product will not become a GMO. The foreign gene in the GM food and the protein it produces, are digestible like many other food proteins. To change the genetic makeup of an organism, new DNA needs to be stably inserted into its genetic material.

A common misconception amongst many is that only GM foods contain DNA. This is not so, humans have been exposed to DNA from conventional crops, animals and their associated micro-organisms for as long as we have been eating these products. So far, there is no evidence that DNA from transgenic crops is dangerous to humans compared to the foods they have been eating to date.

What are the issues of concern for the environment?

The major environmental concern is outcrossing, where genes from GM crops may become established in conventional crops or closely related wild species. The process of out crossing is not unique to GM crops, but is a predictable process that will occur only among closely related plant species that are growing in close proximity and flower at the same time.

All GM crops are thoroughly evaluated to assess the potential of out crossing. The GMO Act requires that GMO trials observe prescribed isolation distances from other crops. If safety to the environment cannot be demonstrated, the product is not approved for trials or commercial release.

Is genetic modification restricted to the food industry only?

No, there are many useful applications of genetic modification, especially in medicine and health care. Medicines and vaccines are already being produced through genetic modification. Advances in molecular biology, immunisation, and genetic engineering have revolutionised our understanding of diseases and their management. Globally there are about 35-40 biotechnology-derived therapeutics and vaccines in use. One example is insulin, which is widely used by diabetics.

Are GM foods assessed differently from conventional foods?

Generally, consumers consider conventional foods safe because they are familiar with them and have been consuming these for a long time. When new foods are developed by natural methods, some of the existing characteristics of foods can be altered, either in a positive or negative way. Specific regulatory systems have been set up for the rigorous evaluation of GM organisms and GM foods, because government is committed to ensuring access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. These systems evaluate both human health and the impact that these organisms can have on the environment.

Are there international safety requirements during the movement of GMOs?

Yes, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which is an international agreement that aims to ensure an adequate level of protection in the field of the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology, was established under the Convention of Biological Diversity. South Africa is Party to this Protocol, which means the Department of Agriculture has to adhere to these international safety standards when conducting activities involving GMOs.

How is the review process of GMOs in South Africa handled?

The Registrar for GMOs receives all applications for activities with GMOs. Once he is satisfied that the application is compliant with the provisions of the GMO Act, the application is forwarded to the Advisory Committee. Members of the Advisory Committee are appointed by the Minister for Agriculture and Land Affairs and consist of scientists who are experts in fields related to GMOs. This Committee evaluates risk assessments (scientific data relating to food, feed and environmental impact) submitted with every application. Based on the fi ndings of the Committee, the application is recommended to the Executive Council for a decision. The general public is also informed and consulted on intended activities related to GMOs by means of notifications in major newspapers. Comments from the public are also considered in the process of evaluating an application. This promotes credibility and transparency in the regulatory process of GMOs.

The Executive Council is the decision-making body and consists of officials from six government departments responsible for matters relating to agriculture, health, the environmental,labour, trade and industry and science and technology, as well as the chairperson of the Advisory Committee. If the Executive Council is satisfied that a certain activity with a GMO may be conducted, the Registrar is authorised by the Council to issue the necessary permit.

The Act allows for anyone who feels aggrieved by a decision of the Council to appeal to the Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, who shall finally rule on the matter.