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9-Misc: GM food: South African public still knows 'nothing'

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                                  PART I
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TITLE:  GM food: SA public still knows 'nothing'
SOURCE: South African Press Agency/The Daily News, South Africa
DATE:   June 3, 2003

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GM food: SA public still knows 'nothing' 

Cape Town: The country's first survey focusing on attitudes towards and
knowledge about genetically modified (GM) food could shock the government
and industry, the National Consumer Forum (NCF) revealed yesterday.
"There are two main issues. The first is that the overwhelming majority
of people in the country know nothing about GM foods, despite the
government investing about R250 million in this technology. The second
major finding is that the majority of people are concerned about the
health effects of GM foods, and want labelling, for example, to be
enforced by legislation," said NCF national chairman Thami Bolani. Bolani
said the on-line survey was complemented by interviews in workplaces and
universities as well as "vox pops" interviews. About 1000 people
responded to the survey, which began in March in response to World
Consumer Rights Day and its theme, "Corporate control of the food chain -
the GM link".

Questions asked in the survey related to:
- Whether participants knew of GM food;
- Participants' attitude towards labelling;
- Whether participants thought GM food was safe to eat.

Bolani said the unofficial results indicated that the government and
industry were not doing enough to inform citizens about GM food. "It is a
serious indictment on the government. People expect a democratic
government will ensure all important information reaches the masses," he
said. In Europe, two out of every three people knew about GM food, Bolani
said. He said the survey results were in the hands of an unnamed Wits
University food sciences professor, who would interpret the information
and compile a final report by the end of this month.

Meanwhile, the environmental advocacy group Biowatch SA said yesterday it
hoped to deliver a presentation on GM food to parliament's portfolio
committee on agriculture during public hearings on the development of
agriculture next week. "The biggest problem we have with GM food is that
it is being introduced into the country without public participation and
without vigorous legislation to control and monitor the safety of it,"
said education officer Haidee Swanby.

                                  PART II
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        APRIL 14 - APRIL 15, 2003
SOURCE: National Consumer Forum, South Africa
DATE:   April, 2003

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APRIL 14 - APRIL 15, 2003

1. Introduction

The National Consumer Forum (NCF) welcomes Parliament's Standing
Committee on Agriculture's facilitation of the debate on Foods Derived
from Modern Biotechnology, commonly known as Genetically Modified
Organisms (GMOs). The debate should hopefully result in greater
understanding amongst the varied and different schools of thought on the

This document briefly outlines some of our views and concerns as a
stakeholder. A detailed Position Paper will be available in June this
year and placed in the NCF website: This document,
therefore, reflects some of the issues currently under discussion within
the NCF.

While an important stakeholder, we are aware that consumers are not the
only sector whose views must prevail. We hope that this is the attitude
of other equally important stakeholders. This of course implies that
stakeholders talk to (rather than talk at) one another as has happened in
other parts of the world. It also implies a level of honest engagement
among the stakeholders and not the arty manoeuvre that tends to
characterise the GMO debate.

2. About the NCF

Established in 1994, the National Consumer Forum is a non-profit, non-
sectarian organisation dedicated to the protection and promotion of the
rights of South African consumers. It provides information and advice on
goods, services, health, personal finances and other such areas that
affect consumers' rights and quality of life. The organisation has more
than 30 affiliates and is a member of Consumers' International - an
international Non Governmental Organisation dedicated to consumer rights.

3. The political economy of hunger

The 1999 Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) Food Insecurity Report
states that about 800 million people in the developing world and a
further 43 million people in the developed world suffer from chronic food
insecurity. The report further notes that about 800 000 households in the
United States suffer from severe hunger. This illustrates that although a
predominantly developing country problem, food insecurity is also found
in the developed world.

In the recent past, those in favour of GMO technology have increasingly
argued that GMOs stand to address malnutrition, hunger and food
insecurity. It is argued that the technology has the potential to
increase food production and yields thereby addressing hunger and food
security. This argument tends to equate food security with food surplus
and disregards issues of social equity, economic disparity, agricultural
and land policies.

There is no causal link between hunger and lack of technology. The real
causes of hunger are poverty, inequality and lack of access to economic
resources. The hungry are the poor. And the poor do not have the means to
buy the available food or they lack the land and the resources to grow
food themselves. The NCF believes that the GMO discourse must be located
in the wider matrix of political economy if we are to effectively address
hunger and malnutrition. We are not convinced that that technology,
outside policy variables, automatically answers development needs.

4. The Precautionary Principle

The NCF is NOT against genetic engineering. Neither do we refute the
probability that GMOs may have great benefits in food production, food
quality and associated benefits. Whether we have the luxury of choice or
not, the decision to consume a food product is undoubtedly one of the
most crucial we make each time we do so. The same holds for when we
consume medicinal drugs. Given the public interest nature of food
consumption, consumers are legitimately concerned about the safety of
what is introduced into the food chain.

The possible risks associated with GMO consumption should, of course, not
be generalised. It is also for reasons curbing reckless generalisations
that the NCF believes that the following policy measures must be put in
place before GMO products are introduced into the food chain.

- The observation of the precautionary principle in assessing and
managing the introduction and application of new technologies. Possible
long-term risks are still unknown and must be subject of research;
particularly risk assessment. We note that the consequences of
developments such as the chemical revolution-pollution and toxic waste
took half a century to surface. The health and environment implications
of the biotech revolution may also be unidentifiable for years or decades.

Some of the issues which consumers want explained to their satisfaction
- Allergenicity risks where genes are moved between species,
- Antibiotic resistance and the use of marker genes
- unanticipated toxicity
- Unanticipated nutritional effects
- Other risks to the food chain, for example from genetic engineering
used for producing medicines, and most particularly from the use of
modified agricultural crops for feeding animals
- Indirect effects on public health, through, for example, changes in the
use of pesticides and the transfer of genes through pollination to other

5. The Right to Know

It is often suggested that GMOs are the same ["Substantial Equivalence"]
as organically grown foods. As a consequence, GMO proponents argue that
it is not necessary to label that a food product is the outcome of
genetic engineering. We raise questions in the item that deals with
"Consumer and Social Concerns" below. Here we wish to state that the
campaign against the labeling of GMOs limits consumers' right to know
what they are consuming.

Consumers have the right to know what they are consuming. Most countries,
including South Africa, have enacted laws requiring the labelling of
food. Such labels contain such as things as may include ingredients, in
many cases processing (e.g. frozen, homogenised, irradiated) and
additives (e.g. food colours, preservatives) and the observation of
standards of identity. Peanut Butter should, for example be made from
peanuts. Some countries require fat, protein, carbohydrate and vitamin
content of food to be labelled as well.

Labels enable consumers to know what they are consuming. From a policy
point of view, they enable public authorities a measure of food safety,
the absence of which can result in the loss of consumer confidence in
regulatory authorities and food products, not to mention the associated
public health risks.

There are many reasons for insisting on consumers' right to know what
they consume. These may include taste, preference, health and religious
reasons. One may want to eat fish to improve their chances of avoiding
heart disease, or avoid fish because they are allergic to fish proteins
or they are concerned about depletion of certain species in the oceans or
about mercury contamination, etc. They may seek out carbohydrates because
they are training for a marathon, or avoid them because they want to lose
weight. Body builders may want red meat, vegetarians will avoid it, and
Muslims will avoid pork but not lamb.

6. Some Consumer and Social Concerns

6.1 Substantial Equivalence vs Organically Grown Food

Since March 15, the NCF has been running a survey to determine consumer
awareness and perceptions about GMOs through our website. Notwithstanding
the validity or otherwise of the reassuring doctrine of "substantial
equivalence," consumers have ambivalent feelings about GMOs. They argue
that humankind has never before possessed the ability to introduce
genetic material from a different species even to take the material from
a bacteria to place it into the genome of an animal or a plant.

This perhaps makes GMOs quite unlike the previous evolution of food
production. Before genetic engineering and the fast pace at which it is
proceeding, humankind had a long time to experience the effects of
genetic modification and to correct the risks related thereto.

A special feature article in Science notes that: "The vast majority of
these crops are the result of single-gene transfers, in which one or more
genes coding for desired characteristics. Such efforts, although
important to raising actual yields, are unlikely to raise potential
yields. To break barriers, the plants will have to be thoroughly re-

6.2 Terminator Technology

In March 1998, US based Delta & Pine Land Co and the US Department of
Agriculture (USDA) announced that they had received a US patent on a new
genetic technology designed to prevent "unauthorized seed-saving" by
farmers. USDA researchers stated that they had spent approximately
$190 000 to support research on the seed technology while Delta & Pine
Land devoted $275 000 and contributed an additional $255,000 to the joint

The patented technology enables a seed company to genetically alter seed
so that [the plants that grow from it become sterile so that farmers are
unable to re-plant the seeds they save in subsequent plantings. Thus the
seeds are terminated. The patent is broad, applying to plants and seeds
of all species, including both genetically engineered and conventionally-
bred seeds. The developers of the new technology say that their technique
to prevent seed-saving is still in the product development stage, and is
now being tested on cotton and tobacco.

According to a USDA spokesperson, Delta & Pine Land Co. has the option to
exclusively license the jointly developed patented technology. The USDA's
Willard Phelps explained that the goal is "to increase the value of
proprietary seed owned by US seed companies and to open up new markets in
second and third world countries."

USDA molecular biologist Melvin J. Oliver, the primary inventor of the
technology, explained that: "Our mission is to protect US agriculture and
to make us competitive in the face of foreign competition. Without this,
there is no way of protecting the patented seed technology."

Up to 1.4 billion poor farmers in the South depend on farm-saved seed and
seeds exchanged with neighbours as their primary seed source. A
technology that restricts farmer expertise in selecting seed and
developing locally-adapted strains is a threat to food security and
agricultural bio-diversity, especially for the poor. The threat is real,
especially considering that USDA and Delta & Pine Land have applied for
patent protection in countries from Madagascar to Mali, from Brazil to
Benin, from China to Vietnam.

6.3 Research & Development and Bio-Piracy

In contrast to the terminator technology, GM and seed companies collect
local food, medicine plants and seed varieties from communities, often in
the name of research and development. With patents, the real danger
exists that these food, medicine plants and seed varieties may come back
as commodities in local communities. Activists call this bio-piracy.


European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
Kleine Wiese 6
D - 38116 Braunschweig

phone:  +49-531-5168746
fax:    +49-531-5168747
mobile: +49-162-1054755
email:  genetnl(at)