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GMO:Layout 1 2009/10/29 1:17 PM Page 1


tion was detected in 71% of products labeled GMOs in medicine

“non-GM”, “GMO free” and/or “organic”. In the USA,
the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) suggests GMOs can be applied in numerous aspects of medi-
that “free” refers to low minimal levels, but not in cine. GMOs are already being used to produce insulin,
fact “GM free”. Different countries have different growth hormones and various antibodies used in
threshold levels of GM levels which are acceptable cancer treatments. Other potential future applications
before a product can be called non-GM, e.g. EU has a include “gene therapy”. All techniques for this appli-
threshold of 0.9%, Australia and New Zealand have a
What is a GMO? • GMOs are used in current vaccines such as
cation are still under research and in trial phases and Hepatitis B (produced by yeast), and new
threshold of 1.0%. are not yet being used in clinics. Examples include
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an vaccines are being developed using GMO
treatments for diabetes, cystic fibrosis, cancer and HIV. technology. In the future, plants may even be
organism (plant, animal, bacteria or virus) whose
Some groups feel that if all GM foods are not labeled,
genetic makeup has been modified for a partic- engineered to contain the vaccines so that we
consumers lose their right to choose between GM Vaccine developments are using GM techniques to
ular purpose. The organism does not occur may be able to eat our vaccinations rather go
products and non-GM products. They would like the insert specific genes from disease-causing viruses
naturally in this modified state. For example, a for an injection.
South African government to require mandatory and/or bacteria , into harmless viruses. These inserts
plant can be modified to carry an additional • In the future, GMOs may be used for gene
labeling of all GM food, including labeling animal potentially allow the body to develop immunity to the
gene found in another living thing (such as a therapy to correct certain genetic conditions.
products derived from animals fed with GM feed. original, infectious virus or bacterium. In this way, we
bacteria) to protect itself against insect pests. Textiles: GM cotton has been created to be re-
The government explains that compulsory labeling can develop an immune response in a way which is sistant to insect attack to improve the yield of
would be expensive and could possibly raise the price harmless to the body. Current HIV and TB GMO
Genes carry the information or the “recipe”, in the crop.
of food by an average of 10%. Because maize is a vaccines are being tested in trials in South Africa.
the sequences and structures of DNA, which
staple of so many people in South Africa, this poten-
gives the organism its specific characteristics. GM crops and food
tial price increase is politically difficult. The process known as “pharming” refers to using
Genes can be added, removed or changed, using
GM animals and plants to produce particular proteins As the world population continues to grow and
modern biotechnology methods. Because genes
In addition, the informal market for fresh produce in as medicines. Such production techniques could
are common to life on earth, genes can be more people need food, it becomes necessary to
South Africa is very large, and regulating this sector dramatically reduce the cost of producing medicines.
transferred from one organism to another and increase food production. This can either be
would be extremely difficult. In certain food products The gene for the desired protein, such as ones for
even between non-related species. This manipu- though the clearing of new land for agriculture,
there is no DNA (such as sugar), and thus detecting vaccines, antibodies or other therapeutic proteins, is
lation can produce a product with new charac- or by increasing yield of the crops on the same
whether or not such products are in fact from GM inserted into the animal or plant. For example, sheep
teristics which may have advantages. amount or less land. The first generation of
crops may be problematic. Also, it may be difficult to and pigs can be modified to produce insulin, inter- GMO technology has been directed at reducing
segregate GM crops from non-GM crops going into feron and human blood clotting protein factor-8 in
food production. These explanations can be found
How are GMOs useful to us? the risks of various threats to crop yields such as
their milk. Research is also going into producing crops insect attack and virus infection. Scientists have
online to produce vaccines. The CSIR is involved research to
Food: GM (genetically modified) plants are been adding genes to crop plants to give bene-
control/docs/explain.html. transform maize to carry antibodies to HIV. UCT has a
already being cultivated as crops and consumed fits to farmers. Four GM crops are cultivated in
plant-based vaccines research group working on South Africa: insect-resistant cotton (since 1997),
by humans and animals. Using genetic engineer-
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and HIV plant-based insect-resistant maize (since 1998), herbicide-
ing, new improved varieties of crops can be
vaccine. Despite the potential in this field, there tolerant cotton (since 2000) and herbicide-
produced more quickly than with conventional
are concerns of safety and contamination of food tolerant soybeans (since 2001). (Herbicides are
breeding methods. Crops can be modified to
supplies, and production of such medicines may in chemical products used to destroy weeds, but
have valuable characteristics such as tolerance to
future be limited to non-food crops. not the crop plants.)
drought and herbicides, resistance to disease
and insects, as well as improved nutritional
content. In 2004, it was estimated that GM crops ac-
Medicine: counted for 24% of yellow maize, 10% of white
• Insulin as a treatment for diabetes was the maize, 50% of soybean and 85% of cotton in
first commercial healthcare product produced South Africa. South Africa now ranks eighth of
by GMOs. Bacteria were genetically modified GM crop producing countries. Latest statistics
to have a copy of the human insulin gene, from 2007 indicate that 51% of yellow maize,
and the protein is synthesized by the bacteria. 62% of white maize, 80% of soybean and 90%
• GMOs can produce other medicines such as of cotton produced were GM crops.
growth hormone.

The information
presented here is
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For more information
on the Scientific
The PUB programme is an initiative of the Department of Science and Technology and is implemented by SAASTA. Editorial Process
followed, visit
The mandate of PUB is to promote a clear, balanced understanding of the potential of biotechnology and to ensure
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F4. GMO:Layout 1 2009/10/29 1:17 PM Page 3


Measurements of GM content in food products It has been shown that the calcium content of • Can small-scale farmers benefit from GM crops? Organisms Act of 1997. Applications to test, produce and trade in
published in 2006 showed that 90% of soy prod- these biofortified carrots can be better absorbed • The cost of GM seeds includes a ‘technology fee’, with the GM crops must be sent to the Registrar at the National Depart-
ucts and 60% of maize products tested in South and used by the body. This is an important as- result that small-scale farmers may not be able to afford it. ment of Agriculture.
Africa contained GMOs. pect of improving nutritional content of plants. Farmers using GM seeds have to pay a technology fee to the
Increased nutrients must be readily absorbed supplier. The application is evaluated by a scientific advisory committee
How are the new varieties and available to the body. South Africa is also • Some traits such as herbicide resistance may be of no benefit which consists of a number of expert scientists. The scientific
created? involved in the Africa Biofortified Sorghum to small scale or subsistence farmers if they cannot afford to advisory committee provides a recommendation to the Council to
(ABS) project to enrich sorghum with essential buy herbicides accept or reject the application, or requests further information
Insect resistance: The bacterium Bacillus amino acids and vitamins. • GM crops are patented, and farmers may not retain seed for on certain points. For field trials, the public is invited to comment
thuringiensis (Bt) is toxic to certain insects. breeding purposes. on an article required to be published by the applicant in three
Scientists incorporate the gene from this bac- As with all new technologies, there are both • Although the safety of GM products is tested in intense, local/national newspapers. Comments by the public are taken
terium that makes it toxic to insects, into the potential benefits and risks/limitations indicated short term studies, the long-term effects on health of GM into consideration by the Council. The Council is represented by
plant. The production of this toxin in the plant by the scientific research undertaken to date. food consumption is not established. six government departments, and is the decision-making body
protects it against the insect attack. The GM regarding the application for the introduction of any GMO into
plant becomes known as, for example, Bt cotton Benefits Safety and concerns of GM crops South Africa.
or Bt maize. • Environmental benefits: Farmers can use less
The cultivation of GM crops is controversial, mainly because of
pesticide on insect-resistant GM plants. This GMO labelling
Herbicide (weed killer) tolerance: A gene concerns around the long-term effect on human health and on
means fewer chemicals that can damage the
from a bacterium is introduced into the plant to the environment.
environment are washed into the soil. Regulations for the labeling of GM foods in South Africa are stip-
make it less sensitive to harmful effects of herbi- • Health benefits: Farmers need to use less
GM food has to undergo stringent tests for safety. GM foods are ulated in the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, 1972,
cides. In this way, herbicides can be used on pesticide on insect resistant plants, which
the only foods subjected to such strict testing. The University of and are expressed in “Regulations Relating to the Labelling of
crops to kill weeds and invasive plants while not results in healthier food.
the Free State’s Genetically Modified Organisms testing facility is Foodstuffs Obtained Through Certain Techniques of Genetic
affecting the crops. • GM crops are better protected by, and are not
researching the health effects of GM crops. Modification” (Government Gazette No. 25908, 2004).
so susceptible to diseases, insects and herbi-
Virus resistance: Genes from a virus which cides, allowing a more consistent yield. There are three main concerns regarding the safety of GM crops: Labelling is currently regulated by the Department of Health.
causes disease are incorporated into the plant. • Pest resistant GM crops reduces the need to • “Outcrossing”, or the movement of genes from the GM crops
These genes allow the plant to become resistant ‘blanket’ spray an entire crop, which impacts to conventional crops or wild relatives. This can be managed by GM foods do not need to be labelled unless:
to the disease. the entire insect population. GM pest resist- • A GM food differs significantly in composition, nutritional
clearly separating the fields of GM and conventional crops.
ant crops effectively target only pest insects • Although the potential is almost vanishingly small, and not value, mode of storage, preparation, or cooking from that of
The specific GM technology used in South that eat the crop. its corresponding foodstuff.
specific to GM foods, genes associated with the GMO can
African GM crops were all developed overseas. • Higher yields of crops due to improved • The label of a GM food must indicate the likelihood of an
potentially be transferred to the body or to the bacteria that
Now South African scientists are researching and protection (it should be noted that in ideal allergic reaction if the inserted gene is derived from the major
exist naturally in the gut. This can potentially create superbugs.
developing GM crops to solve problems specific conditions, i.e. no pests or weeds, GM crops • The potential of new allergens through the transfer of genes allergens: crustaceans, eggs, fish, milk, groundnuts, mollusks,
to Africa, such as crops resistant to drought, have no superior yield compared to their soybeans, tree nuts or wheat.
from foreign organisms. Allergens are compounds that cause
maize resistant to virus infection and crops with conventional counterparts). allergic reactions. No allergic effects have been found in any • The food must be labeled if a plant food contains genetic
improved nutritional content. For example, they • It costs less to produce crops due to lower GM food currently on the market. An example is where re- material derived from an animal or human, or if an animal-
are transferring genes from the indigenous susceptibility to viruses and insects. The crops searchers became concerned when, during the development of derived food contains genetic material from a human or a
‘resurrection’ plant Xerophyta viscose, which is have greater “hardiness”. a GM soybean crop, it was found that the soybeans caused an different animal family.
naturally drought tolerant, to crops which are • Costs are potentially saved through a reduced allergic reaction. This soybean crop was modified to contain a
affected by drought. Maize resistant to a virus need for pesticides and/or herbicides. gene from a Brazil nut, aimed to improve the protein content There are no regulations regarding labeling of animals or animal
called maize streak virus (a disease with a major • GM crops can allow ‘no-tillage’ farming, of soybeans. The Brazil nut is a highly allergenic food, and it products which have been fed on genetically modified feed.
economic and social impact in sub- which has benefits both for the farmer and was subsequently discovered that the gene transferred caused
Saharan Africa), is also being developed. for the environment. the allergic reaction. Research on this crop was stopped. Where an industry wants to label a product voluntarily to indicate
enhanced characteristics due to the genetic modification, such
Second generation GM crops are aimed at im- Risks/Limitations There are systems and regulatory processes in place in South labeling must be validated by a body accredited to SANAS (South
proving the nutritional properties of the crops • Environmental risks: Farmers may use weed Africa which evaluate and regulate GM crops and food. Before African National Accreditation System).
to enhance human health. There is strong evi- killers indiscriminately on herbicide resistant any GM crop is released it is investigated for safety to both
dence that deficiencies in iron, zinc and vitamins crops if they know their crops are less human health and the environment. The Government Gazette published “Regulations Governing the
are a major cause of underlying health problems susceptible to these chemicals. Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs” (No. R. 2034 Regulation
in many developing countries. In these countries • The toxic effects of insect resistant plants Who determines whether GMOs are safe? 9(d)) in 1993. This prohibits any label or advertisement claiming
much of the diet is from starchy, staple foods could potentially also kill beneficial insects that a foodstuff is free from a particular substance if all other
such as rice, wheat and maize. Biofortification is such as bees. South African regulations are determined by the South African foodstuffs in the same class are free from that substance. In other
the name given to the process of enriching the • Although the BT toxins are specific only to government following standards set in the “Cartagena Protocol words, a product cannot be labeled “GM-free” if no GM products
nutrient content of plants as they grow. One of certain classes of insects, the longer term on Biosafety”, and guidelines from the international regulatory are available in that class of food as this would be misleading and
the first biofortified crops produced by genetic impacts on the ecosystem is not yet well body called Codex (Codex Alimentarius Commission). This is a imply that any products not labeled “GM-free” would be geneti-
engineering was rice grains containing beta- established. joint Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and World Health cally modified.
carotene, known as “golden rice”. • Insect resistant or herbicide tolerant crops Organisation (WHO) body which compiles the standards, codes of
can potentially cause the development of practice, guidelines and recommendations which together form It is important to note that a label stating that a product is not
Another example is carrots which are being harmful pest resistance plants, or so-called the international food code. The procedures for dealing with GM may not necessarily be truly free of the GMO product. In the
engineered to have a higher calcium content. “superweeds”. GMOs in South Africa are stipulated in the Genetically Modified study by Viljoen et al (2006), it was found that genetic modifica-