Windhoek — The Chairperson of the Namibian Organic Association (NOA), Manjo Smith, has warned consumers to be extra cautious when buying foodstuffs such as maize, soya, canola, cotton, alfalfa and sugar beet, as these products are most likely to contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
GMOs are highly used in soya production, followed by use in maize, cotton, canola and others such as alfalfa and sugar beet farming. She says it is very important that people know about GMOs, because they might be eating GM food and additives, without knowing about it and because it is mostly not labelled. The association also calls for the mandatory and comprehensive labelling of genetically engineered agricultural products.
Smith made the statement after recent revelations that some popularly consumed food products in Namibia actually contain GMOs. The Namibia Consumer Trust (NCT) 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 tests revealed that 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.
During an awareness creation public lecture, Smith revealed that about 40 percent of the entire world's grain production is used for animal feed. Seventy seven percent of GM crops are grown in the United States of America (USA), Argentina and Brazil, which is less than three percent of global agricultural land. The USA does not use GMOs in its staple food, while the Europeans only use it for non-consumptive purposes. However, only in Africa are GMOs used in staple food such as maize, and in South Africa, which could be regarded as the food basket of Southern Africa. Most SADC countries source its foodstuffs from South Africa.
According to Smith, there are numerous concerns for farmers when using these organisms. Firstly, GM traits are patented, while no seed saving is allowed, meaning farmers have to buy new seeds every time and non-GMO crops can be contaminated. Other implications she highlighted are the rising seed and herbicide costs, consolidation of seed companies, and loss of farmer seed breeding knowledge, such as of locally adapted seeds as farmers are obliged to buy seeds.
"Farmers become completely dependent on seed and input suppliers, while social networks between farmers are disrupted and organic farmers are impacted through possible contamination," Smith added. Once these organisms are released in the environment, Smith said, they cannot be recalled, as cereals cross with various grasses, and the land is also contaminated. She also related how products of some organic farmers, especially in South America, were contaminated by neighbouring GMO farmers.
The risk of an organic or non-organic farmer's products not using GMOs being contaminated can be very high if a neighbouring farmer is using GMOs.
Smith listed the environmental concerns of GM impacts such as the disruption of the food web, biodiversity and the negative impact on pollinating insects, such as bees, farmers' 'friends' such as ladybirds and lacewings, while negative impacts have also been found in moths and butterflies. In addition, she said, Bt genes from GM crops also disrupt the food web in the soil. "Ecological health begins in the soil as it is the most vital source of nutrients for plants," Smith emphasised.
According to Smith, animal tests have shown worrying health impacts including effects on the gastro-intestinal tract, inflammations, ulcerations, excessive growth of stomach and gut lining, disturbance of liver, pancreas, kidney and testes functions. Alterations in both body weight and blood composition were detected, while allergic reactions and immune responses were detected as well. The impact is felt in the second generation.
Nutritional changes were experienced, as shown by the altered level of existing, or presence of new, toxins, allergens and anti-nutrients, which stopped nutrients from being absorbed by the body. An altered level of existing nutrients such as vitamins also showed up in tests.
Genetic modification (GM) is the creation of new organisms, through the transfer of genes from one species to another, by using unrelated species of plants, animals and micro-organisms, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi. It is thus not an extension of conventional breeding.
Reasons given for the creation of GMOs vary from "it will solve the hunger crisis in the world and in Africa; GM crops have massively increased yield potential; GMOs decrease pesticide use; GM foods are safe because genetic engineering is no different to conventional breeding; GMOs are more nutritious, longer-lasting and better- tasting; GM and non-GM crops can co-exist without contamination to GM technology and will boost farmer income and profitability".
There are definitely two schools of thought - one in favour of GM and another, clearly against it. There is another group of consumers who do not have a clue of GM or its existence, who are at the mercy of those in the know and who decide on their behalf. Hence the importance of people acquainting themselves with the specifics of GM. When consumers are provided enough and credible evidence about "both sides of the story", only then can they make informed decisions.