Sifelani Tsiko: Zimbabwe has made a huge step towards establishing genetically modified (GM) labelling laws which seek to improve access to information for consumers keen to know the status of food they are eating.
Experts drawn from various sectors met recently in the country’s capital, Harare, to input into the process of developing a comprehensive Statutory Instrument on Labelling of Food and Feed That Are and Are Not Products of Genetic Modification.
Stakeholders who took part at the workshop organised by the National Biotechnology Authority of Zimbabwe were upbeat that the GM labelling laws will eventually support efforts aimed at establishing mechanisms for spearheading bio-safety issues in the country.
NBA board member and legal expert, Regis Mafuratidze, said the consultative workshop sought to review and validate the draft SI on GM labelling.
“The NBA has drafted a Statutory Instrument on Labelling of Food and Feed That Are and Are Not Products of Genetic Modification from its existing Standard on GM labelling,” he said.
“The major objective of this statutory instrument is to ensure that consumers are fully and reliably informed about the nature of products offered for sale or for free thereby allowing for them to make an informed choice.”
Mafuratidze said the NBA will submit the SI to the Attorney General’s Office for approval after finalisation of the draft.
Biotech experts say labelling is the cautious approach to the use of GMOs in food products for information purposes.
“Some adverse effects are known while others are still unknown and with this Statutory Instrument we want to enhance consumer confidence on food safety while at the same time preventing companies and marketers from misleading consumers through deceptive advertising or information about food products,” said a participant.
“It’s a milestone for Zimbabwe to develop such guidelines for the protection of human and animal health from the unintended effects of GMOs.”
Broadly, the laws aim to prescribe that goods that are produced, supplied, imported or packaged must display a notice disclosing the presence of any GM ingredients or components of these goods.
Once approved, the new draft laws will compel industry to label food containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients.
This comes after a protracted row between big food producers and consumer organisations over the issue of labelling, with anti-GM activists accusing food processing companies of failing to label their products, something which they argue violated the rights of consumers.
“Consumers have a right to know what they are eating and a right to choose what they eat,” said a food nutritionist at the workshop.
“Mandatory labelling of GM food is necessary to protect consumers. At present, there are almost no GM labels on food on supermarket shelves.”
Zimbabwe imports the bulk of food items from South Africa which has more than 90 percent of maize and soya genetically modified.
Maize or soya products are found in a wide range of food, from breakfast cereals, margarine, sausages and hamburgers to chocolate bars, ice cream, bread and baby food.
Pro-GM activists in Zimbabwe say GM foodstuffs are safe and have expressed concern over the continued ban on GM products in the country.
“Consumers in Zimbabwe are eating GM products despite the ban,” said a pro-GM activist. “Consumers are now even more concerned about knowing what they eat and once this instrument is finalised they can at least choose to or not to eat it if the food is labelled. It’s all about empowering consumers to make informed choices.”
Agriculture, Mechanization and Irrigation Development Minister, Joseph Made has over the years repeatedly stated the import and the production of GMOs remains banned because Government was uncertain on their risks to human health, environment and agriculture.
Despite the ban, GM products continue to infiltrate into Zimbabwe and the rest of the SADC region through porous borders from South Africa.
An El Nino-induced drought ravaging Zimbabwe and most other SADC countries is set to re-ignite debate over the safety of GM maize imports to avert hunger.
Zimbabwe has mobilised $260 million to import grain as part of its efforts to avert hunger and shore up its strategic grain reserves.
The Government is targeting to import between 500 000 and 700 000 tonnes of maize from Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and South Africa, which were now producing biotech crops.
Prior to this, Zimbabwe was importing non-GM grain mainly from Zambia. The country needs about 1,8 million tonnes of grain for human and livestock consumption a year and has issue permits to private millers to import a further 700 000 tonnes to augment Zimbabwe’s food stocks.
Zimbabwe requires all imported GM grain to be milled at the port of entry especially when there is a serious drought that threatens the survival of humans and livestock.
The draft SI of GM food labelling will put the NBA in charge of overseeing the labelling of foods with genetically modified ingredients.
The regulations will require the NBA, in collaboration with other strategic government agencies to review the safety of a product before it enters the marketplace.
In addition, the regulations will require mandatory labelling on food with genetically modified ingredients if they are found to be unsafe or materially different from foods produced without biotech ingredients.
Biotech experts estimate that up to 80 percent of imported packaged foods contain ingredients that have been genetically modified on the country’s supermarket shelves despite the ban.
Participants debated the draft labelling laws rigorously pointing gaps that needed to be addressed.
Practical questions which arose in relation to the application of the local GM labelling framework included:
Whether the local labelling mechanism enables traceability from the first stage of production to the consumer?
Who is responsible to ensure that GM products bear appropriate labels?
Which products need to be labelled and according to which threshold?
How government will address inadequate GM labelling inspection staff and technical facilities for regular inspection
If labelling is inadequate, what is the recourse mechanism?
Some participants expressed concern that GM labelling requirement will raise production costs and affect the country’s competitive edge.
Others said there was need for clarity on how the NBA would handle confidential company information, trader access to information and the timeline before a company could change its labels.
“Some information held by companies are quite sensitive and should be treated cautiously as it may affect the company’s competitive edge,” said a company official at the workshop.
“There are so many regulations under the ministry of health governing labelling and we need to harmonise the regulations to avoid duplication and the imposition of more fees for these.
“If we are not careful, this will push our costs and make Zimbabwean products uncompetitive.”
Some further called on the NBA to simplify the technical language used in the draft to ensure clarity and promote the understanding of the regulations in the industrial sector.
“Our labelling laws should talk to each other,” said Mr Edworks Mhandu, an industrialist in the cotton sector.
“Our laws should not conflict each other. We need one law and one set of regulations. We import a lot of products into the country and we need to be clear on the traceability of GM content otherwise the laws may be un-enforceable.”
Even though, Zimbabwe now recognises the role of biotechnology in improving food production and in the medical sector, public misconceptions on genetically modified organisms (GMO) as well as a ban on GMO products and seed has stifled the growth of the sector in the country.
Biotechnology experts argue for the lifting of the ban on GMOs in Zimbabwe saying it was not feasible to produce enough food to ensure food security using traditional methods.
The debate on use of GMOs continues to rage with some resistance, particularly from the civil society, which argues that such food has not been certified as fit for human consumption.
Pro-GM activists say biotechnology should be given a chance to revolutionise agriculture and help farmers move with modern trends.
Experts also note that Zimbabwe needs a vigorous education campaign on GMO, plant breeding and biosafety issues to clear misconceptions in the minds of the people and also enable the general public to understand issues.
In 2014, a record 181,5 million hectares of biotech crops were grown globally, an increase of more than six million hectares from 2013, according to a report released last year by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).
Having cultivated 2,7 million hectares in 2014, South Africa ranks as the leading developing country to grow biotech crops in Africa.
Sudan increased Bt cotton hectarage by approximately 50 percent in 2014, while several African countries including Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda conducted field trials on several crops which included rice, maize, wheat, sorghum, bananas, cassava and sweet potato.