Frequently asked questions about genetic modification

What is genetic modification?

It’s the process of altering an organism by the inserting or removing of small fragments of genetic material or genes to create desirable characteristics. Genetic modification involves the transfer of genes between species that are unrelated in nature, resulting in transgenic organisms or crops.

These genetically modified plants can spread and interbreed with natural plants and so contaminate environments in unforseeable and uncontrollable ways.

There is inadequate scientific understanding of the impact of genetically modified crops on the environment and human health.

Is it the same as biotechnology?

Genetic modification is one kind of biotechnology. Biotechnology is the process of modifying living organisms – but not necessarily through genetic modification. Humans have been using biotechnology for many centuries in crop selection, selective breeding of animals and the development of vaccines.

When did GM crops first get grown in South Africa?

Which genetically modified crops are currently approved for commercial release in South Africa?

Which genetically modified crops are being experimented with in South Africa?

There are at least 11 different kinds – but none have yet been released commercially.

Which are the main genetic modification companies in South Africa?

There are five and they are all foreign multinationals.

What laws does South Africa have to regulate genetically modified crops?

There are three main laws – the Genetically Modified Organisms Act (under the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Affairs) labelling regulations (under the Ministry of Health) and the Biodiversity Act (under the Ministry of Environmental Affairs and Tourism)

This law was implemented in 1999, two years after the first genetically modified crops were planted. It provides for only limited regulation. Among its serious flaws are:

Labelling regulations

These make the labelling of genetically modified products voluntary and place the burden on food producers who want their products to be GM-free to ensure this happens.

Has a weak clause which says that if the Minister believes it necessary, an environmental impact assessment could be carried out on a genetically modified crop for which approval is being sought.

What’s the situation in the rest of Southern Africa?

South Africa is the only African country commercially producing genetically modified crops. It is also the only country which is producing a genetically modified staple food – maize – on a commercial scale.

At least six of the 15 Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries have said no to genetically modified crops.

The countries in SADC are Angola, Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Madagascar applied for membership recently.

The six which have taken a firm stand against genetically modified crops are:

Other SADC countries and countries in the rest of Africa are developing legislation to regulate genetically modified crops.

Which other countries produce genetically modified crops for commercial purposes?

According to a March 2005 report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, about 44.2 million hectares of land worldwide is cultivated with genetically modified crops. About 75% of this is in industrialised countries where the crops are mainly soybeans, maize, cotton and canola.

In 2002 the United States of America, Canada, Argentina and China grew about 99% of the world’s genetically modified crops. China – which grows mainly genetically modified cotton - is using a locally developed and commercialised genetically modified cotton crop.

The other estimated 1% of genetically modified crops came from South Africa and Australia.