Commonly Asked Questions and Answers
For thousands of years farmers and scientists have applied plant selection and later breeding techniques to move genes within the same species or from related wild relatives to improve the yield, safety and quality of the crops. A number of techniques are used widely in laboratories to introduce new traits in plants. One method is to apply certain chemicals to plants, which results in mutations. These plants may present with traits of interest to farmers.
Since the mid-1970s, progress in biology has enabled scientists to identify, copy and delete genes from an organism and to insert them in another, possibly unrelated organism. This targeted transfer of genetic information is known as gene technology, genetic engineering or genetic modification. This technology is applied to produce new crop traits, medicines (insulin and vaccines produced in GM bacteria), diagnostics and intermediates in many chemical and biological processes (detergents, and food additives such as cheese chymosin (rennin) and waste management).
The World Health Organization (WHO) has published a number of answers to questions that are commonly asked. Most of the information is still valid and important after five years of production and trading in GM crops. Considerable developments in the approach to risk and safety assessment of GM foods have taken place since the publication of the WHO guidelines on safety assessment, which are referred to in the WHO publication of 1914. The Organization for Economic Coordination and Development (OECD) has played a significant role in this field and a large number of guidelines and publications have followed since the WHO-Codex meetings. The WHO publication (above) provides general information on GMOs. These questions and answers are applicable to the South African situation.
- What are genetically modified organisms and foods? ‘Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms), in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and natural recombination. The technology is often called “modern biotechnology “or “gene technology”, and sometimes “recombinant DNA technology “or “genetic engineering”. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between nonrelated species. Foods produced from or using GM organisms are often referred to as GM foods’ (WHO 2014).
- Who checks the safety of GM products in South Africa? South Africa follows a precautionary approach to legislating the assessment and release of GMOs. The Genetically Modified Organisms Act, No 15 of 1997, which was implemented in 1999 and revised in 2007, provides for a decision-making body, which consists of representatives from eight national government departments and constitutes the official GMO Executive Council, and for an independent scientific advisory committee (AC), which comprises ten scientists. A subcommittee of the AC, which consists of about 30 academics and independent scientists, forms part of the review process. Fourteen application forms have been designed to meet the requirements for safety assessments according to a tiered approach. These include contained use, trial release, importation (commodity clearance) and general release. This regulatory framework is compliant with the Codex Alimentarius risk analysis model (CAC).
- What is the situation in South Africa with regard to the growing of GM crops? The South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) has approved the planting of various insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant cotton, maize and soybean cultivars and a drought-tolerant maize variety, as single events and as stacked events. The yield from GM crops that are planted by farmers is greatly influenced by climate change. Summaries of crop production over a number of years are available from ISAAA Crop-Biotech.
- What about the importation of GM foodstuffs into South Africa? All GMOs are subject to a special import permit under the GMO Act. GM maize, GM soybean and canola oil, which are all derived from GM canola, have been approved for import. Imported processed foods from countries such as the USA, Argentina and China may contain GM-derived, soya and maize ingredients.
- Does South Africa export GMOs? This is subject to an export permit and compliance by the importing country with the Cartagena Protocol. Major regular exports are commodity GM maize.
- Labelling GM foods is important. What is the situation in South Africa? ‘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 labelled 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 labelled as such if a plant-derived food contains genetic material that is derived from a human or an animal, or if an 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 realize that government declares that these foods are 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’ (DAFF online) The Department of Trade and Industry has published regulations, which to some extent are in conflict with those of the Department of Health. This department requires labeling when a certain percentage of GM is present in food. Where Department of Health bases its regulations on food safety, the DTI bases it on information to consumers.
- Are there any new developments of interest in biotechnology? The progress in biological technological research is dynamic. It is now possible to introduce new traits or remove unwanted effects by even more precise techniques of engineering the organism’s own genes. This is called genome editing, of which the CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) system is gaining a great deal of attention. These new techniques are far less expensive and quicker to perform than the older ones. But there is controversy among countries over whether to classify the products of these technologies as genetic modification or not.
Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC). Procedural Manual. Available from: http://www.fao.org/docrep/009/a0247e/a0247e04.htm Viewed on 25 February 2019
Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF). Biosafety. Available from: https://www.daff.gov.za/daffweb3/Branches/Agricultural-Production-Health-Food-Safety/Genetic-Resources/Biosafety/. Viewed on 18 February 2019
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). Available from: http://www.isaaa.org/. Viewed on 18 February 2019
Organization for Economic Coordination and Development (OECD). Available from: https://biotrackproductdatabase.oecd.org/. Viewed on 18 February 2019
World Health Organization (WHO) (2014). Frequently asked questions on genetically modified foods. Available from
Viewed on 1 February 2019
Updated for FACS by WWa & WRi (2019).