In keeping with our commitment to remove or replace ingredients from genetically modified crops in our foods where possible, Woolworths has announced plans to reduce the current number of products containing ingredients derived from genetically modified (GM) crop sources in private label foods by 50 percent over the next year.

Currently only 5.3 percent of Woolworths private label foods contain ingredients from potential GM crop sources. That should drop to less than 2.7 percent within 12 months.

In 1999 Woolworths announced a policy on genetically modified ingredients, and in 2000 introduced GMO labeling so that customers could make informed buying decisions. Every ingredient is checked back to source, and where we cannot guarantee that it was not derived from a GM crop, the ingredient is clearly labelled “may be Genetically Modified (GM)”. Maize, soybeans and cotton are the only GM crops allowed to be grown in South Africa.

“The agricultural industry has changed significantly since GM crops were introduced in South Africa in 1998. It has become more challenging to source competitively priced ingredients from non-GM sources, and we are most grateful to our suppliers who have committed to taking this journey with us,” says Woolworths MD for Foods, Zyda Rylands. “Working together, we are identifying ingredients from non-GM crop sources that are both sustainable and commercially viable.”

“Many of our customers have told us that they would prefer not to buy products that may contain ingredients from GM crop sources, and we respect their wishes. In addition to our commitment to remove GMOs where possible, we will continue to offer alternatives, such as our certified organic products, which are guaranteed free of GMOs, and of course currently no fruit and veg grown commercially in SA contain GMOs.”


The issues surrounding GMOs are a source of ongoing debate in the community and one that we know concerns many Woolworths customers.

  • 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. In South Africa the only crops that may be genetically modified are 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).


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 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.



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.


The production of GM crops is 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 eighth 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.

Percentage of South African crops that are genetically modified *

  • 86.6% Maize
  • 92% Soya
  • 100% Cotton

These crops 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 & 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.