Windhoek — Maize meal sold in some shops in Namibia is derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a recent test has revealed.
Moreover, unsuspecting Namibian consumers are being charged at least an 8 percent "GMO free premium" on maize products under the pretext the maize brand does not contain any GMOs. The agronomic industry is operating under an agreement it refers to as the 'marketing agreement' through which the price of maize is fixed.
The Namibia Consumer Trust (NCT) had after years of suspicion of wrongdoing in the agronomic sector, sent some samples of three maize-based products for testing in a lab at the University of the Free State in South Africa.
The test revealed Ace Instant porridge contains 56.82 percent GM maize while the popular White Star Maize contains 2.75 percent GM maize, and Top Score maize meal contains 1.09 percent GM maize.
"The latter two are supposedly Namibia produced and are expected to have been GMO-free, but this is clearly not the case," the NCT chairperson, Sandi Tjaronda, said at a media briefing yesterday.
The trust said one of the major concerns for Namibian consumers has been the conduct of the Namibian agronomic industry with regard to pricing practices and full disclosure of the content of their produce through labeling.
"Whether the marketing agreement is not violating the Namibian competition law is not the issue, the question is if the practice of fixing prices through an agreement between millers and producers at the expense of the consumer is morally correct," he said.
According to Tjaronda, the practice is unfair to the consumer, since producers are allowed to unilaterally determine prices and other trading conditions under the auspices of the Namibia Agronomic Board (NAB), allowing them to effectively create an 'anti-competition' cartel.
"This violates the consumer's right to choice and subsequently affects the price charged to the consumer. Consumers are forced to buy the local produce at exorbitant prices through closed borders and the marketing arrangement during the marketing season," he added.
Since the NAB is overseeing the industry, the NCT said the NAB is playing a significant role in protecting the interests of the agronomic industry. "The board has a special responsibility with regard to the way the product is produced, as well as marketed as per the Act governing controlled crops," Tjaronda said.
Since maize in Namibia is a controlled crop, GMOs are therefore not supposed to be present in the product. The NCT urged the NAB to discipline uncalled for production and or marketing of GM maize in Namibia, and as a moral obligation to ensure that the industry refunds consumers for having been subjected to a GMO-free premium, while the maize actually contains GMOs.
Genetically engineered crops have created a world-wide controversy since its introduction in global agricultural practice in 1996, whereby at least 40 countries worldwide have banned, restricted or strictly labeled such foods due to uncertainty pertaining to its long-term impact on humans, animals and the environment.
NCT quoted a researcher at the African Centre for Biosafety in South Africa, Haidee Swanby, who says there is a lack of scientific consensus regarding the impact of GMO's on human health and the environment.
Environmental impacts of genetically modified organisms include the disruption of food webs in the ecosystem, which have a negative impact on pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies.
Animal tests have also shown the disturbance of liver, pancreas and kidney functions, allergic reactions and immune responses as well as inflammations, ulcerations and excessive growth of the stomach and gut lining.
Through the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Namibia is supposed to be protected against genetically modified foods and other products.
The Cartagena Protocol is an international agreement which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, also taking into account risks to human health.
It was adopted on January 29, 2000 and entered into force on September 11, 2003. Since Namibia is party to this protocol, it has drafted the Biosafety Act, which governs the use of GMO crops, feed and foods.
Although the Act has been passed, its commencement date has not yet been gazetted. "Unfortunately this Act is not yet in force as the regulations need to be completed by a government body that is not set up yet," the NCT chairperson said.
The NCT has embarked on further tests by sending maize cobs from Otavi in the maize triangle to establish if the sample in that form tests negative or positive for GMO presence. It said its findings about the conduct of the agronomic industry should serve as a warning.
In response the NAB said it fully agrees with the NCT that GMOs need to be labeled so that consumers have a choice in terms of knowing what they are eating. However, the chief executive officer of the NAB, Christof Brock, said the board does not have the power or mandate to ensure that producers comply with conditions to label their produce.
Brock said the Ministry of Education, which is supposed to implement the Biosafety Act of 2006, is the only one that could deal with all those concerns. The National Commission on Research, Science and Technology, under the education ministry is supposed to deal with the issue.
"We have no power to stop someone who smuggles in GMO seeds at the border, because there are even no inspectors at the border and we are not the ones to oversee that. We feel the same as the NCT. Let us implement the Biosafety Act, so that products can be labeled."
With regard to the GMO-free premium, Brock said, they cannot deprive 99 percent of law-abiding producers and farmers because of the one percent that does not adhere to the law. He said once the law is in place it would be clear whether GMO products will be allowed in Namibia, or whether all such products need to be labeled.
Brock however added that it would be useful to have industry representation under such an oversight body. When approached for comment, the Ministry of Education referred New Era to the National Commission on Research, Science and Technology, which could not comment at the time of going to print.
Namibia has received money from the United Nations Global Environmental Fund (GEF), through which a National Biosafety Project was successfully piloted, as well as a demonstration project to support the implementation of the National Biosafety Framework for Namibia.
In August 2011, the Deputy Minister of Education, Dr David Namwandi said Namibia needed to establish infrastructure, as well as train its human resources in order to implement the biosafety requirements, but to date it appears that those plans are still on the shelf.