Thousands protest GMO products

03 January 2019 | Agriculture

JANA-MARI SMITH



Nearly 9 500 signatures from the public have been collected in a petition calling for the ban on the import and sale of maize products containing genetically modified organisms (GMO).

An online petition headlined ‘Stop GMO maize meal in Namibia’ had been signed by 9 473 persons by mid-day yesterday.

It calls on the Biosafety Council of Namibia to deny permits to both Namib Mills and Bokomo to import, process and sell GMO maize meal.

Social media have also been abuzz, with many urging the public to sign the petition to ban GMO imports and listing the alleged health hazards of GMO products.

However, while comments on social media have warned that the public should sign the petition in order to prevent members of the public from consuming GMO products, GMO products have long been sold to consumers and labelled accordingly.

Finished food and feed products imported into Namibia containing GMO include canola oil, cotton, maize, rice, soya products, sugarcane, potatoes and wheat products, as listed under a declaration of GMO products which was gazetted in October 2018.

The authors of the online petition claim that “GMO products have proven to be not healthy for human and animal consumption, secondly hence GMO maize is cheaper, local and smallholder famers cannot sell their maize or corn for the most desired price (sic).”

The petitioners are instead urging support for “our own local smallholder farmers who produce organic maize”.

The petition further states that a ban on GMO’s would “create an artificial maize shortage from those who have the monopoly of maize and feed products in Namibia; however there are countries that do sell organic maize to fill up the maize shortage safely.”

Public outcry

While the surge of public opposition in recent weeks has put the spotlight on GMO products being sold in Namibian shops, many question the public’s understanding of imports that contain GMO, which have long been available in the country.

Pieter van Niekerk, Namib Mills’ commercial manager, told Namibian Sun yesterday that most food and feed products imported into Namibia contain some degree of GMOs, as it has become the norm globally to produce these items with genetically modified ingredients.

He said the company is “pro-local products” which are non-GMO but the local market does not produce sufficient local harvests to supply local demand.

Namibia produces around 50% of its white maize needs while the remainder is imported from South Africa.

“We have to import and the most sustainable import is GMO,” Van Niekerk explained, as the country would face a shortage of the local staple otherwise.

He added that white maize containing GMO has been imported into Namibia for nearly two decades.

He said a concern about the public protest against the GMO products is that most who are petitioning “against something they don’t really understand and don’t really investigate what is happening”.

“Everyone who is signing this petition should walk through the shops and see for themselves how many GMO products are being sold and consumed.”

He said it’s a concern that the public outcry is directed at the local millers, but that there is no protest against finished GMO products that are imported into Namibia.

He cautioned that a ban on these products would empty supermarket shelves of breakfast cereals, packaged soups, products containing soya and many other items.

“Let’s say the petition is successful, are we saying we won’t import any South African products that have GMO. So where will our food come from?”

Namibian Sun recently quoted Gabriel Badenhorst, Bokomo’s chief operating officer, who also clarified that products containing GMOs have been legal in the Namibian market for years.

New oversight

He said the goal of the new regulations that require the applications for a permit, which has brought the GMO issue under public scrutiny, “is to regulate their presence instead of simply banning them”.

Applications for the permit as well as an emergency response plan have been submitted by Bokomo and Namib Mills to the Biosafety Council operating under the National Commission on Research, Science and Technology (NCRST).

The NCRST is mandated to check that GMOs entering Namibia, or which are produced locally, are safe for humans, animals and the environment.

Public input in relation to the applications need to be lodged before 27 January.

Namibian Sun was informed by a NCRST official that public input is crucial but that all submissions should contain “valid and tangible reasons” why the council should consider denying awarding the permits to import, transport and process GMO ingredients.

The Biosafety Council’s website states that each new genetically modified crop and genetically modified food “undergoes rigorous assessment including testing to see if the new gene have potential toxins or allergens.”

The website underlines however that there “is no technology available to provide any evidence of long-term effects on human and animal health and the environment”, but states that all activities involved in producing GMOs undergoes a scientific risk assessment and possible consequences are investigated.”

With the new regulations in place, the NCRST aims to regulate the use, production and movement of GMOs in Namibia and to ensure the products are safe.

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