Windhoek — The Namibian Organic Association (NOA) is calling for the introduction of mandatory and comprehensive labelling for genetically engineered agricultural products or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Namibia.
"Mandatory and comprehensive labelling is necessary in order to ensure that the rights of consumers are protected, since a rapidly growing number of consumers do not want to consume genetically engineered agricultural products," the chairperson of NOA, Manjo Smith, said.
Smith made the statement after recent revelations that some popularly consumed food products in Namibia actually contain GMOs. 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 to a lab at the University of the Free State in South Africa.
The test revealed that Ace Instant Porridge contains 56.82 percent genetically modified maize, while the popular White Star Maize contain 2.75 percent genetically modified maize, and Top Score Maize Meal contains 1.09 percent genetically modified maize.
Smith said they are very concerned about the high levels of GMOs contained in processed maize products for sale on Namibian supermarket shelves. "Our concern and objection are based on the worrying body of published, peer-reviewed scientific evidence from controlled animal studies carried out in many countries that demonstrate that GMOs cause a wide range of serious unexpected and unanticipated health problems," she said.
According to her, farmers and consumers deserve to choose and actively pursue the kind of future they want for the food industry, the agricultural sector and arable land, as well as the risks they are willing to take in exercising that choice. "But once GM crops become part of the environment and food production systems, they cannot be contained and our right to choice is denied," she said.
Smith said it is therefore critical that regulators develop and adhere to safety checks in the food industry or even question whether new technologies are in the best interest of Namibian producers and consumers alike.
The NOA chairperson noted that they have approached the National Commission on Research, Science and Technology for the speedy implementation of the Biosafety Act of 2006.
According to Smith, the regulations are currently being reviewed by the legislature, while the chief executive officer of the commission will be appointed shortly. Smith further said at least all products containing a minimum of 1 percent GMOs should be labelled. A positive thing, according to Smith, is the fact that a number of South African-produced products found on Namibian shelves are being labelled.
However, only South African products with a minimum 5 percent GMO presence are labelled. "We are concerned about that. Five percent is too high. For example consuming these products will compromise a person with HIV/AIDS's immune system. Baby foods with combined starches could also contain GMOs," she said.
Some industry players warn that the 5 percent threshold is not based on any scientific measure, but purely on commercial considerations. In neighbouring South Africa, from where about 70 percent of Namibian food originates, consumers have won a hard earned victory with regard to the labelling of GM foods.
Late last year, the SA Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) published draft amendments to the regulations governing the labelling of GM foods. According to the draft amendments, all locally produced and imported food containing 5 percent or more GM ingredients or components must be labelled as "contains genetically modified ingredients or components."
The African Centre for Bio-safety (ACB) congratulated the DTI and praised the huge role played by consumers in asserting their right to know. South Africa has been growing GM crops since 1999 and consumers have been largely unaware that their staple food, maize, has been genetically modified.
South Africa also cultivates GM soya and cotton. Indeed, a large amount of foodstuffs on supermarket shelves contains GM ingredients or components, which are also available in Namibia. The Namibian Organics Association campaigns against the use of genetically modified ingredients in human and animal foods and are against the commercial production of GM crops in Namibia.
The NOA supports technologies that help produce food with care for human health, the environment and animal welfare, putting farmers in control of their own livelihoods.
When approached for comment the Chairperson of the National Commission on Research, Science and Technology, Josephine /Haubas said they are busy with the drafting of an official response on the matter, through the Ministry of Education.
In addition, the matter will be discussed during the next commission board meeting scheduled for April 14, 2013. The board meets four times a year.