Genetically Modified Organisms – GMOs

Genetically Modified Organisms [GMOs] and Biotechnology

Commonly Asked Questions And Answers

Since the mid 1970’s progress in biology has enabled scientists to identify, copy or delete genes from an organism and to insert them into 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 development of new crop traits, medicines (insulin and vaccines produced in GM bacteria), diagnostics and intermediates in many chemical and biological processes (detergents, food additives such as cheese chymosin (rennin) and waste management). In this paper only crop plants are considered.

  1. What is a GMO?
    A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any living organism that contains genes not normally found in it. This novel genetic material will have been transferred into the organism using genetic modification technology and not through conventional breeding and selection.
  2. What is genetic modification technology?
    GM technology can move one or more genes from an animal, a plant or a micro-organism into another animal, plant or micro-organism. This is the precise movement of specific genes that are well studied and understood. There are at present no human or animal genes in commercialised GM crops or their foods.
  3. What other techniques have been used to improve crops?
    Over thousands of years farmers and scientists have been applying plant selection and later breeding techniques to move genes within the same species or related wild relatives to improve yield, safety and quality of the crops. Mutation techniques with chemicals are now abundantly used.
  4. How safe are the plant products from these other techniques.
    The products from any kind of genetic modification whether the old fashioned breeding techniques, mutation techniques and plants from genetic modification are all subjected to plant breeding trials where “off lines” are eliminated. This is an effective way of eliminating most unwanted effects.
  5. Where does genetic modification fit in the possible unwanted effects?
    Scientific assessments and results from new comparative studies on compositional analysis, allergens, toxins, and plant traits have shown that the new genetic technology (GMO technology) is less disruptive to the genetics of plants because of greater precision, than techniques such as mutation breeding. (EU-European Commission-GMO section report 2009)
  6. Is it ethical to move genes between organisms?
    Many scientists see gene modification as a natural progression in breeding, selection and pharma- ceutical development. However, ethics when designing GM products is taken into account. Individuals can base their decisions on their religious, spiritual and personal beliefs.
  7. Who checks the safety of GM products in South Africa?
    South Africa follows a precautionary approach in legislating the assessment and release of GMOs. The GMO Act (No 15, 1997 revised in 2007) implemented in 1999 provides for a decision making body consisting of representatives from eight national government departments, constituting the official GMO Executive Council and an independent scientific advisory committee (AC) comprising ten scientists. A subcommittee of the AC consisting of about 30 academics and independent scientists forms part of the review process. Twelve different application forms have been designed to meet the requirements for safety assessments according to a tiered approach .These include inter alia: contained use, trial release, importation (commodity clearance) and general release. None of these apply to conventional varieties or food products. This regulatory framework is compliant with the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
  8. Will this new gene increase the toxicity or allergenicity of commonly eaten foods? Is GM food safe to eat?
    All genetically modified foods are carefully assessed by independent laboratories to ensure that they are as safe as or better in all ways to the conventional product and will not increase allergies or toxicity or introduce any new allergens or toxins.
  9. Should GM foods be labelled?
    Consumers should be empowered to make informed choices about whether they choose to use GM products or not. Using the term “GMO-free” on the label is irresponsible as it infers that such a product is preferred, and that all other products contain GMO’s, which scientifically is not correct. A statement that certain food is GMO-free is not possible as zero tolerance is practically impossible. Labelling of GM foods is regulated by the Department of Health (R25/2004) and also by the Department of Trade and Industry. The recent GM ingredient labelling of the Department of Trade and Industry is in conflict with that of Health.
  10. Will an animal which eats GM feed become a GMO?
    No, the GM plant is digested in the animal gut and the foreign gene and its protein are digested like any other food protein.
  11. Will the foreign genes move from the crops or production animals into natural plants and wildlife, ultimately impacting on the health and balance of natural ecosystems?
    It would be unacceptable to release any GMO that will cause long term damage to ecosystems. During the testing phase gene movement is restricted to the trial site. Foreign animal DNA is not incorporated into the plant DNA code. Biosafety review committees carefully assess gene movement before approving commercial release of GMOs.
  12. How much is really known about the environmental consequences of GM crops?
    An environmental risk assessment is required of each new event. Resistance by some target insects to GM crops has occurred to some of the GM traits. These are carefully monitored and stewardship programmes have been developed by the owners of the technology to address various aspects of safety. Insect resistance to GM technology has been addressed by various techniques of which stacking of traits directed at different modes of action in one plant is currently the most important and successful way. GM crops resistant to pests and herbicides have been shown to be beneficial to the environment in ways such as: significant reduction in chemical pesticide use and facilitating no-till in conservation practices.
  13. Will commercial GMO crops influence organic crops?
    Pollen moves naturally between crops. Fertilization will only occur between the same compatible species. It is possible to protect organic fields and seed production centres from genetically modified pollen using spatial and herbaceous borders.
  14. What is the situation in South Africa with regards to the growing of GM crops?
    The South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has given approval for the planting of various insect resistant and herbicide tolerant cotton, maize and soybeans. Current status is 86% of area planted to maize, almost 100% of soya beans and 100% of cotton areas are GM.
  15. What are the benefits of insect resistant crops?
    • Considerably less use of insecticides beneficing farm workers, farmers, consumers and the environment.
    • Better quality food as there is less fungal infection (mycotoxins), less insect damage and less residual insecticide.
    • Better safety for farm workers and those living near the fields.
    • Less impact on the birds and beneficial insects around the fields. Insect resistant crops are very selective and only control very specific insect pests.
    • Less time and energy spent by farmers in producing the crop.
    • Contributes to more efficient, sustainable food production.
  16. What about the importation of GM foodstuffs into South Africa such as soya and fruits and vegetables?
    All GMO’s are subject to a special import permit under the GMO Act. GM maize, GM soybean and canola oil 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 tomato, soya and maize ingredients.
  17. Does South Africa export GMOs?
    Yes, subject to an export permit and compliance by the importing country with the Cartagena Protocol. Major regular exports are commodity GM maize at about 2 million MT annually, several thousand MT of seed for planting as well as small amounts of seed for testing, and import/export of experimental vaccines for humans.

UPDATE – August 2005
WHO publishes its opinion on GM foods

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has published an opinion on genetically modified (GM) foods. It is delivered in an 84 page report which suggests that GM foods can contribute positively to human health and development, but stresses the need for continued safety assessments prior to marketing, to prevent risks to health or the environment.

An extensive investigation found that genetic modification techniques have the potential to increase crop yield, food quality and the diversity of foods that can be grown in a given area, resulting in improved health and nutrition. WHO claims that so far the consumption of GM foods has not caused any known negative health effects, and that GM foods are more rigorously examined than conventional foods for potential health and environmental impact. The organisation also suggests that, in future, evaluation of GM foods should be widened to include social, cultural and ethical considerations. It also notes that many developing nations lack the capacity to implement a regulatory system for GM organisms.

The report is divided into six broad areas:

  • Introduction
  • Current use, research and impending development of foods produced through modern biotechnology
  • Risk of GMOs and GM foods for human health and the environment
  • Development of regulatory and food safety systems in the area of modern biotechnology – a role for capacity building
  • GM food and food security
  • Social and ethical concerns about GM foods

(Press release from WHO and Nutra Ingredients Europe).

Updated for FACS by WWa & WRi (2016).