Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in food is a topical issue and one that, we know, concerns many of Woolworths customers. The issue is making news nearly every day, and issues surrounding GMOs are a source of ongoing debate in the community.

What does the term GMO stand for and why is it such a controversial issue?

GMO stands for "genetically modified organisms", and foods that contain ingredients with GMOs are considered GMO foods. GMOs are used in many crops including soybeans, maize and cotton.
GMOs are created in the laboratory when scientists isolate genes that are responsible for certain traits in one plant and insert the gene into another plant or add genes from non-plant organisms to a plant. Organisms that have been genetically modified include micro-organisms such as bacteria and yeast, plants and fish.

The key areas of controversy are:

  1. whether or how GM food should be labelled;
  2. the role of government regulators;
  3. the effect of GM crops on health and the environment;
  4. the effect on pests and pesticide resistance;
  5. the impact of GM crops for farmers; and
  6. the role of GM crops in feeding the world population.
  7. ownership of the food supply chain (Seed patents)


Arguments against:

The arguments against GMOs focus on:

     1.   Safety

The issue of safety of GMOs has been a concern since researchers first introduced them commercially in 1996 in the USA and in 1998 in South Africa. Government support for GM implies that there are no safety issues.

     2.   Effects on small farmers

Some of the arguments against the use of GMOs include industrialisation of agriculture, pushing out the small farmers in favour of mass production of crops due to legalities surrounding intellectual property and ownership of seeds. It should be noted that it’s not only GMOs that contribute to these issues.

    3.    Potential “superbugs” and “superweeds”

Among the critics' most serious charges are GMOs' potential to stimulate the rise of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs" and pesticide-resistant "superweeds" that require the use of increasingly powerful drugs and hazardous chemicals.

    4.    Possible “contamination” of other plants

One major concern is keeping genetically modified crops from entering the environment, where their DNA could mingle with the DNA of other plants. The effect that genetically modified DNA could have on other plants is currently unknown.

   5.      Potential long-term risks

Opponents of genetically modified food claim risks have not been adequately identified and managed. Some health groups say there are unanswered questions regarding the potential long-term impact on human health from food derived from GMOs, and propose mandatory labeling or a moratorium on such products.


Arguments in favour:

The arguments in favour of GMO focus on:

  1. Faster growth and maturity of plants

Supporters of GMO argue that genetically modified plants and animals that grow and mature faster with greater disease resistance and bigger yields are a strong argument in favour of GMO cultivation.

     2.   No risks to people and environment

There is significant scientific consensus that food derived from GM crops poses no greater risk than conventional food. No reports of ill effects have been proven in the human population from ingesting GM food.

    3.   Environmental benefits

There are environmental benefits to GM crops. Some GMO plants, for example, can be "designed" with a built-in resistance to insect pests. These plants need fewer pesticides, making them a greener choice for farmers than non-GMO crops that require pesticides. Plants and animals can also be genetically improved to grow in poorer soils, colder temperatures, drier climates and other less-than-favourable conditions. These GMO crops could have more nutrients and could also need less-intensive industrial processing. Proponents argue these are important benefits in a world where more than 7 billion people now need to be fed.


GMO’s in South Africa

The production of GM crops are supported by our government. In 1999 the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) Act of 1997 came into force paving the way for the growth of the industry. The first GM crops were planted in 1998.

17 years later South Africa is the 8th largest producer of GMOs in the world. In 2013 alone South Africa produced 2.9 million hectares of GM crops. In 2011 the Consumer Protection Act came into force requiring that all foods containing 5% or more GMOs content must be labelled. There are different views on the interpretation of the legislation. We await clarity from government regulatory bodies on the contentious issues. We will, however, continue to label the product (as we have been doing since 2000) as “May be Genetically Modified (GM)” where we cannot guarantee that an ingredient was not derived from a GM crop.

There are major differences in the regulation of GMOs between countries, with some of the most marked differences occurring between the USA and Europe.


Percentage of South African crops that are genetically modified

  • 80 % white Maize
  • 55 % yellow Maize
  • 85 % Soya
  • 98 % Cotton

The crops listed above are the only ones containing genetically modified genes that are allowed to be grown in South Africa.

There are no GM fruit or vegetables grown or on the market in South Africa.



Woolworths is often asked questions about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food. Here are answers to the 10 questions most frequently asked by our customers.

1.   I’ve heard there was a study saying Woolworths white bread is 85% GMO. Is that

Absolutely not. A recent study of a loaf of our white bread found that the soy flour component (which makes up significantly less than 1% of the whole loaf) contained 85% GMO, not the whole loaf itself.

2.   Does the South African government support GMOs?

Yes. The Genetically Modified Organisms Act of 1997 paved the way for the growth of the GMO industry. SA is now the eighth largest producer of GMO crops in the world.

3.   Are there laws in SA on labeling food with GMO ingredients?

Yes. GM labelling legislation has been in place since 2004. (R.25 of 16 January 2004:  Regulations relating to the Labelling of Foodstuffs obtained through Certain Techniques of Genetic Modification)

The Consumer Protection Act (R.293 of 1 April 2011:  Regulations – Regulation 7 Product labelling and trade descriptions: genetically modified organisms) came into force in 2011, and requires all food containing 5% or more GMO content to be labelled. (We do more than that. We label food ‘may be genetically modified’ whenever we can’t guarantee that the ingredient is not obtained from a potentially genetically modified crop.)

4.   What is the official Woolies position on GMO?

We are committed to empowering our customers to choose for themselves by providing accurate and informative labelling. Our preference is to avoid the use of GMO in Woolies food. Where we cannot, we label products that might contain GMO.

This has been our policy since 1999. We have committed to reducing the number of products containing ingredients from GMO crop sources by 50% within the next 12 months.

5.   Does Woolworths label all their own label products that might contain GMO


6.  Why does Woolies stock products that contain GMO ingredients at all?

We offer a lot of choice, particularly to those who prefer to avoid GM food. Currently, only 5.3% of Woolworths private label food products contain ingredients from potential GM sources and this figure is scheduled to halve over the next year. Our wide organic offering also does not allow GMOs, while no fruit and veg grown commercially in SA contain GMOs.

There are arguments for and against GMO, and we believe our customers should be empowered to make their own decisions.

7.   But didn’t you make a commitment to remove all GMO from your food?

Our preference is to avoid GMO from our food OR clearly label products that may contain GM ingredients. This way our customers can decide for themselves, based on their own feelings around the GMO debate.

We are committed to reducing the number of products that contain ingredients from GM crop sources.

8.   Why does Woolworths say that food supplier information is 'deemed sensitive'?
      That sounds like a smoke screen

We try to be as open as possible about our suppliers (and celebrate them) but as in any commercial environment, we need to keep some supplier details to ourselves to keep the business competitive. We take full responsibility for all our products and we will assist customers with their queries.

9.   What is Woolies doing to reduce the amount of GMO used in their product?

With the agricultural industry so dominated by GM maize, soy and cotton, it’s become more challenging to find non-GM sources of these ingredients. Together with our suppliers, we are identifying non-GM sources that are both sustainable and commercially viable.

10. What must I do if I’m South African and I really want to avoid all GMO?

Read ingredient labels carefully, and choose organic products whenever possible. Remember fruit and vegetable commercially grown in South Africa are not GM. Be aware that the genetically modified crops grown in South Africa are pre-dominantly white maize, yellow maize, cotton and soya.



There are strong views for and against GMO’s that are difficult to reconcile. Woolworths is committed to empowering our customers through labeling, so that they can make informed decisions for themselves.
Our preference has been to remove GMO from Woolworths food or label the products containing GMO. This has been the practice since we announced our GM policy in 1999, and introduced labelling in 2000.

We have always engaged our customers on GMOs in foods and we will continue to listen to their concerns and produce foods that meet their requirements where we can.

We believed Woolworths currently offers customers sufficient choice, particularly those customers who choose not to consume GM ingredients. We have a significant organic offering in our stores which does not allow GM. In addition, no fruit and vegetable in South Africa is derived from GM sources. Currently, only 5.3 % of Woolworths private label food products contain ingredients derived from potential GM sources.

The agricultural industry has changed significantly since GM crops were introduced in 1998, and it has become more challenging to source ingredients from non-GM sources at competitive prices for our customers. We're continuously investigating sustainable and commercially viable alternatives.

We are committed to reducing the number of products that contain ingredients from GM crop sources. We are continuously doing extensive research throughout our food supply chain to ensure we can deliver on this commitment.

We check all ingredients back to source, and where we cannot guarantee that the ingredient was not derived from a GM crop, we label the product as “May be Genetically Modified (GM)”. We use this statement if the origin of the crop is from an area where GM versions of the particular crop are cultivated. We state ‘may be’ as no crop is 100 % genetically modified, and therefore stating that it is, would be inaccurate and misleading.

Customers are advised to check the label to ensure that they are making the right choice.

Our labels comply with labelling legislation and regulations and we will gladly comply with any changes to government guidelines on labelling of GMO.

We are pleased that our customers keep engaging Woolworths on their concerns. We know that our customers have high expectations and we will keep doing our best to deliver to that.


Zyda Rylands

MD of Woolworths Food