Blog about the upcoming food shortage crisis

Everybody throws stones at the prophet, but when the crisis comes they yell: “Why nobody warned us?”

03-03-2008 20:08
`Agflation’ Opens Door for Gene-Modified Crops

By Cho Jin-seo
Staff Reporter

Global food price inflation is forcing people to rethink the consumption of genetically modified (GM) foods in Korea.

Last Monday, an association of four food companies ― Daesang, Samyang Genex, ShinDongBang of CJ Group and Corn Products Korea of Doosan Group ― said that they will start to use GM corn (which is still controversial in many countries including Korea) to make starch, which is a core ingredient of many foods such as bread, noodles, cookies, soft drinks and ice cream.

The announcement might have resulted in a huge public backlash under normal circumstances. But the firms had timely support from President Lee Myong-bak though he might not intend it. The new President said in his first Cabinet meeting the following day that he was concerned over food inflation, especially the 100-won rise of ramyeon, or instant noodles.

There has been widespread suspicion that the bio-engineered foods can potentially pose long-term danger to human health or to the environment. But because of the recent “agflation,” or agricultural price inflation, many think it impossible not to consume food grown from engineered seeds.

Environmentalists such as the Korean Foundation for Environmental Movement still condemn the scheme, and said it will hold street rallies and press conferences to stop the import of GM seeds. But the media and government remained relatively calm. Even some NGOs, such as the Consumers Union of Kore, said that GM foods are now inevitable on Korean dinner tables.

“I was disappointed by the announcement. But we have to admit that it is difficult to live with only Non-GM food anymore,” Lee Hyang-gi, vice president of the prominent consumer activist group, said during a conference of the International Life Sciences Institute last Tuesday. “In this situation, we don’t have the freedom to choose. It is now a matter of how to fill the gap between the reality and the perception of consumers.”

GM crops have genes altered by using modern DNA engineering techniques to be more tolerant to pests and have higher yield. Though most people do not realize this, a large part of Koreans’ staple food consists of these biotech crops in the form of processed food such as soy sauce and cooking oil or the meat of animals bred on corn and soybeans.

There has been unending debate over the safety of biotech crops. Critics say that they are unsafe because there is no evidence of them being safe. Advocates say that they are safe because there has been no evidence of them being unsafe. Most scientists say that eating biotech foods are as safe and as reliable as other “original” foods because they are tested through rigorous procedures.

The government is vague on the issue. The Food and Drug Administration acknowledges the safety of GM foods in general, but has been cautious in addressing the issue because of unfavorable public sentiment.

The situation, however, will change with the inception with the Lee Myung-bak government, said Shim Sang-in, an official in charge of genetically modified organism (GMO) safety.

“So far, the Ministry of Agriculture has focused on increasing domestic food production. We thought that we had to decrease imports and buy locally grown crops even if they are more expensive,” he said during Tuesday’s conference. “But the world is now becoming a single market. Our ministry is also being transformed from Ministry of Agriculture into the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries. That will change our mindset to care more about consumers’ benefit.”

South Korea’s food industry depends heavily on imported crops. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Korean farmers produced only 24.8 percent of crops consumed by the public. In case of corn, the portion is only 0.8 percent. Such weak local production made the industry vulnerable to the changes of international food prices.

According to Han Kun-hee of CJ Cheiljedang, a major producer of processed foods and an importer of soybeans, the price of soybeans has risen to $15 per bushel (about 35 liters) from $6 two years ago. And the price of non-GM beans is much higher than that because almost all beans traded internationally are engineered, Han said. “This will be a big social problem. It is a crisis for Korea,” he said.

Time to Air GM Commercial?

Despite a strong need for the biotech crops in the food industry, public opinion is still not so favorable. According to a survey by professor Kyung Kyu-hang of Sejong University, only 13 percent of Korean consumers said they are willing to buy GM foods, while 20 percent said they won’t and 53 percent said they should wait and see how others do.

Kyung, however, says that most of those people do not make such decisions based on scientific knowledge. About 26 percent of respondents said they believe non-GM tomatoes do not have genes at all, bad or good. Another 38 percent said they do not know about the exact difference between GM and non-GM.

The food industry, the government and the media are blaming each other for the situation. At the conference of the ILSI, scientists and representatives from food processing companies blamed the media and the government for leading consumers to have misconceptions about the safety of biotech foods. Many newspapers tend to use the Korean expression of “genetically manipulated” instead of “genetically modified” or “genetically improved” because it sounds more sensational, said a representative from a livestock feed company.

In return, a newspaper reporter defended the media, saying that the industry did not try hard enough to convince journalists and sway them. “Frankly speaking, firms can influence news articles by having lunches with editors or buying advertisements,” said a Joongang Ilbo reporter who spoke on a panel, blushing his face.

Labeling is another controversial issue in promoting GM foods. The government requires food manufacturers and distributors to identify the presence of GM ingredients on the package, if a food product contains these content that accounts for more than 3 percent of the total weight. Soy sauce and cooking oil are exceptions to the regulation. The government admits such rules are arbitrary and have little meaning in helping consumers make the right decision.

For example, soybean and other cooking oils are excluded from the labeling policy not because they proved totally safe while other foods are not, but because there is no way to verify whether they are made of GM crops or not with current testing techniques, said Koo Yong-eui, a senior official of the Food & Drug Administration.

The establishment of the 3 percent rule is as unscientific. “We set the limit at 3 percent because it was (the average of) 1 percent in the European Union and 5 percent in Japan at the time,” a senior director of the Korea Food & Drug Administration told The Korea Times. “We first tried to set it at 5 percent like Japan, but the Ministry of Agriculture opposed it because they were worried about the protests from environmental groups,” she said.

indizio@koreatimes.co.kr

→ Monsanto Seeks Opportunities in Asia

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March 3, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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