What is a Genetically Modified Organism?



A genetically modified organism, (GMO), is any organism, (plant, animal, bacteria or virus), whose genetic makeup has been modified for a specific reason. The organism does not occur naturally in this modified state and it is usually modified to carry an additional gene found in another living thing, (such as a bacteria), for additional qualities that the organism does not possess. Biotechnology allows for the addition, removal and change of genes. Genes are the tools which gives an organism its specific characteristic through the DNA that they contain.

The controversy around GMOs centers around the fact that genetically modified organisms have been introduced in our food supplies in a variety of ways. Four GM crops are cultivated in South Africa: insect resistant cotton (since 1997), insect- resistant maize (since 1998), herbicide-tolerant cotton (since 2000) and herbicide-tolerant soybeans (since 2001).

Herbicides are chemical products used to destroy weeds, but not the crop plants.

In 2004, it was estimated that GM crops accounted for 24% of yellow maize, 10% of white maize, 50% of soybean and 85% of cotton in South Africa (James, 2004).  South now ranks eighth of GM crop producing countries. Latest statistics from 2007 indicate that 51% of yellow maize, 62% of white maize, 80% of soybean and 90% of cotton produced were GM crops (Agri SA newsletter, Feb 2008). Measurements of GM content in food products published in 2006 (Viljoen et al, 2006) showed that 90% of soy products and 60% of maize products tested in South contained GMOs.

The controversy of using GMOs is that the public first of all is not aware that GMOs are prevalent in such a mass manner in the commercial food chain, where almost every product contains a GMO derivative. Secondly, the long term health effect on GMO exposure has not been evaluated in any positive concrete long term studies.

There are three main concerns regarding the safety of GM crops:

“Outcrossing”, or the movement of genes from the GM crops to conventional crops or wild relatives, (Hug  2008).

There is the potential that Genes associated with the GMO can potentially be transferred to the body or to the bacteria that exist naturally in the gut. This can potentially create super-bugs. (Lack 2002; Hug 2008).

The potential of new allergens (Lack, 2002) through the transfer of genes from foreign organisms. Allergens are compounds that cause allergic reactions are in particular a concern if a highly reactive allergen is transferred into an organism that previously had a low of allergic reactions.

Most countries do not mandate labeling GMO food products. South is one of the few countries on the forefront of GMO labeling.

Regulations for the labeling of GM foods in South are stipulated in the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, 1972, and are expressed in “Regulations Relating to the Labeling of Foodstuffs Obtained Through Certain Techniques of Genetic Modification” (Government Gazette No. 25908, 2004).

The Government Gazette published “Regulations Governing the Labeling and Advertising of Foodstuffs” (No. R. 2034 Regulation 9(d)) in 1993. This prohibits any label or advertisement claiming that a foodstuff is free from a particular substance if all other foodstuffs in the same class are free from that substance. In other words, a product cannot be labeled “GM-free” if no GM products are available in that class of food as this would be misleading and imply that any products not labelled “GM-free” would be genetically modified.

On the 9th of October 2012, the   (DTI) published  to regulations governing the labeling of genetically modified food in .  The public had to comment. According to these , all  imported or locally produced food which contains 5% or more genetically modified  components or ingredients, must now be labelled as “contains genetically  modified ingredients or components” which will give the ability to make a more .

It is important to note that a label stating that a product is not GM may not necessarily be truly free of the GMO product. In the study by Viljoen et al (2006), it was found that genetic modification was detected in 71% of products labeled “non-GM”, “GMO free” and/or “organic”. In the USA, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) suggests that “free” refer to low minimal levels, but not in fact “GM free” (Partridge and Murphy, 2004).

Different countries have threshold levels of GM levels which are acceptable before a product can be called non-GM, for example the European Union has a threshold of 0.9%.


1. AgriSA E-newsletter. 28 February 2008. No 05/2008. GM crop production up 30% in RSA. Found at URL: http://www.agriworldsa.com/article-archive/newsletters/agri-sa-e-nuusbriefe-newsletter-5-2008/

2. Department of Agriculture. 2005. Understanding genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). http://www.nda.agric.

3. Hug, K. 2008. Genetically modified organisms: do the benefits outweigh the risks? Medicinia (Kaunas) 44(2): 87-99.

4. James, C. 2004. Global status of commercialized Biotech/GM crops: 2004. ISAA Briefs No 32. ISAA: Ithaca, NY.

5. Jeong, J and Guerinot, ML. 2008. Biofortified and bioavailable: the gold standard for plant-based diets. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of USA 105(6) 1777-1778.

6. Lack, G. 2002. Clinical Assessment of GM foods. Toxicology Letters 127 (1-3): 337-340.

7. Mayet, M. 2004. Critical analysis of South Africa’s Labelling Regulations for Genetically Modified Food,

8. Feed and Products Derived from GM-fed Animals. African Centre for Biosafety. www.biosafetyafrica.net.

9. Morris, J; Hawthorne, KM; Hotze, T; Abrams, SA and Hirschi, KD. 2008. Nutritional impact of elevated calcium transport activity in carrots. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of USA 105:1431-1435.

10. Nordlee, JA; Taylor, SL; Townsend, JA; Thomas, LA and Bush, RK. 1996. Identification of a brazil-nut allergen in transgenic soybeans. New England Journal of Medicine 334(11): 88-692.

11. Paine, JA; Shipton, CA; Chaggar, S; Howells, RM; Kennedy, MJ et al. 2005. Improving the nutritional value of Golden Rice through increased pro-vitamin A content. Nature Biotechnology 23: 482-487.

12. Partridge, M and Murphy, DJ. 2004. Detection of genetically modified soya in a range of organic and health food products. British Food Journal 106: 166-180.

13. Toenniessen, GH. 2002. Crop Genetic Improvement for Enhanced Human Nutrition. Proceedings of the XX International Vitamin A Consultative Group Meeting. Journal of Nutrition 132: 2943S-2946S.

14. Viljoen, CD; Dajee, BK and Botha, GM. 2006. Detection of GMO in food products in South Africa: Implication of GMO labeling. African Journal of Biotechnology Vol 5(2): 73-82.

15. Williams, R. 2006. The status of genetically modified (GM) pharmaceutical crop research in South Africa. African Centre for Biosafety. www.biosafety.net.

16. Ye, X; Al-Babili, S; Kloti, A; Zhang, J; Lucca, P; Beyer, P and Potrykus, I. 2000. Engineering the pro-vitamin A (beta-carotene) biosynthetic pathway into (carotenoid-free) rice endosperm. Science 287:303-305.

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