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August 05, 2008

Millions of South Africans eat genetically modified cereals for breakfast

Laboratory tests have found that more than half of the maize used in some of South Africa's top breakfast brands is genetically modified.

Maize is one of the country’s staple foods and a key ingredient in breakfast cereals.

The type of modified maize grown locally contains an additional gene, borrowed from a type of bacteria, that makes the crop more resistant to insects.

Products that have tested positive for GM maize include ProNutro original flavour (52.7 %), ProNutro Toddlers Instant apple and banana flavour (97.5%), Iwisa Maize Meal (27.2%), Tiger Brands Ace samp (53.7%) and Purity cream of maize baby soft porridge (24.9%).

Cereal products found to be completely GM free were Pick n Pay No Name Brand cornflakes and Kellogg’s cornflakes.

The results have drawn an outcry from anti-GM groups, who want compulsory labels on all GM food sold in South Africa.

Labelling in South Africa applies only to GM foods that are “substantially different” from non-GM foods or contain animal or human genes. There is a global row over the labelling of GM foodstuffs, with some countries — including all European Union member states — insisting on labels for any kind of GM food.

“Labelling GM foods in Europe did not result in increased food prices but did result in an almost total rejection of them,” said Andrew Taynton, spokesman for SafeAge, which commissioned the latest survey.

Andries Pretorius, director of food control in the Department of Health, said: “Currently in South Africa, GM foodstuffs on the shelves only contain inserted bacterial genes and proteins and these foodstuffs are considered substantially equivalent to their non-GM counterparts and therefore do not require to be labelled.”

The laboratory tests, done at the University of the Free State, drew a cautious reaction from retailers, who said the days of GM-free cereal appeared to be over due to the size of the country’s GM crop.

With more than half the maize crop now genetically modified, buying GM-free maize is increasingly difficult, and likely to become more expensive. Both Kellogg’s and Pick n Pay, whose cereals tested negative for GM, said they did not specifically request non-GM maize from suppliers.

Kellogg’s spokesman Marlinie Kotiah said: “We don’t have a policy one way or another. But we produce crops that can give us the corn flakes we desire.”

Pick n Pay’s Cindy Jenks said GM crops were so widespread that very few foods were completely GM-free — and labels to that effect might be misleading.

Felix Lombard, a spokesman for Bokomo, which produces ProNutro, said the company supported the government line, that GM labels were only needed on products whose nutritional content was changed due to GM.

Tiger Brands’ Jimmy Manyi said GM maize was an industry issue, not a Tiger-specific matter.

South Africa, Africa’s only sub-Saharan country to commercialise GM food crops, has about 1.6 million hectares of GM maize — about 57% of the total maize crop.

Other African countries have expressed concern about trade and technology issues around GM technology. To date there are no documented health risks associated with GM foods, although anti-GM lobbyists are concerned about possible long-term GM side-effects.

Leslie Liddell, director of environmental group Biowatch, said: “The patenting of GM seeds, which prohibits saving of the seeds by farmers who plant them, in normal circumstances, but particularly in the current food crisis is disturbing as our food production system is increasingly being placed in the hands of GM seed companies, thus undermining not only household food security but also food sovereignty.”

Jocelyn Webster, executive director of GM-lobby group Africa Bio, gave a counter view: “Farming is a hugely risky business; the input costs can be anywhere between R5000 ($700) to R7000 a hectare. If you’re spending that much you have to get a good yield. . . the major beneficiaries here are the farmers. ”

The Times

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