Masters student Taryn de Beer reports on her thesis findings.

South Africa is a country that consumes, produces and trades genetically modified (GM) food, and has been a strong promoter of GM crops since the mid-1990s. This research focused on the highly topical issue of the labelling of GM food in the country, and stakeholder involvement in the development of GM labelling laws. Although there is an increased understanding about the social and political implications of GM labelling in developed countries, implications for developing countries are still poorly understood.

This study thus aimed to analyse how policies and laws for GM food labelling developed in South Africa, in order to draw wider conclusions about GM food labelling in developing countries. Supporting objectives were:
(a) to describe the development of GM food-labelling policy and law in South Africa;
(b) to elucidate the roles that those involved in the food production chain, and other stakeholders, have played in the evolution of the policy and its implementation;
(c) to analyse the extent to which stakeholder perspectives, interests and needs were addressed in the policy-development process; and
(d) to identify the blockages and/or opportunities that impede or facilitate the implementation of the GM food-labelling policy and law in South Africa.

Methods were predominantly qualitative and included a literature review, in-depth interviews with 27 stakeholders from industry, government, NGOs and the academic and scientific community, and document analysis. A stakeholder analysis approach was used to frame and inform the research findings, providing a stakeholder perspective through which to examine the policy development process of mandatory GM labelling.

Key findings suggest strongly conflictual positions between stakeholders throughout the development of the law focused on the effectiveness of stakeholder participation; the use of a ‘may contain’ label; the percentage of the threshold level; and labelling costs. Stakeholders who participated in and contributed towards the process, had their own degrees of ‘interest and power’, which influenced and impacted on the GM labelling policy-making and the implementation processes.

Results also revealed that the implementation of mandatory GM labelling encountered several problems, with its effectiveness relying on companies’ own understandings of ambiguous regulations. Key challenges also incuded the lack of communication by the National Consumer Commission (NCC) with other stakeholders in clarifying and rectifying ambiguities; the lack of recourse for non-compliance; an inefficient Commission; and the absence of a government-enforcement agency. Implementation continues to remain a challenge, and its effectiveness relies on food companies’ own understandings of the regulations, with or without ambiguities in the law.

The importance of offering ‘deliberative spaces’ for meaningful stakeholder debate is emphasised. Government departments need to improve their relationships with different actors and to increase the allocation of financial and human resources for such policy processes. Civil society can positively contribute to public awareness by monitoring compliance and establishing consumer protection groups. The agri-food industry needs to recognise consumer rights and be more accountable and transparent. An effective policy requires government to create and demonstrate a public participation process that is believable by all role-players. To do this, larger policy questions regarding the desirability of adopting or rejecting of GMOs need to be resolved before the start of the participatory process.

* Taryn obtained her MSc with distinction in December, 2015. Her research is currently in preparation for publication.