Cost and concerns would riseProponents for tougher GMO labeling argue that foods processed with genetically engineered elements should be disclosed regardless of the amount and manufacturing method. They insist we should follow the GMO labeling standards of the European Union. They have a point, but national policies - including food labeling - should not merely copy others, but instead reflect the public sentiment and state strategies of individual countries.
In the earlier stage of GMO studies and development, the potential environmental and health hazards from artificially combining growth hormone genes and genetic alteration were hotly debated. Safety concerns have eased somewhat, and the issue has shifted to the right to know. Many countries have authorized GE foods, bolstering their legitimacy. Questions on the long-term effects of consumption of GM grains and animals fed on GMOs, however, resurface time and again after reports of testing GMO ingredients on animals. But animal testing has been conducted through similar procedures and the same group of scientists. Other scientists have questioned the validity, design and conclusion of the experiments.
Many cannot shake off concerns about hereditary disruptions and disorders from long-term consumption of genetically modified foods. But it is a scientific fact that genes in foods do not affect human genes in any way. For instance, even though we consume rice for a lifetime, the gene in the rice crop does not affect genes in human bodies. The health hazards and safety concerns from genetic modification, therefore, are all in the imagination. They are more a question of what if?
Some believe the EU’s toughened regulation on GMO labeling is aimed at insulating the consumers, farmers and food industry of its economic bloc from competition. But publicly, EU authorities argue the move is to guarantee their people’s right to know. Korean campaigners mimic their argument on “the right to know” and demand South Korea also implement stronger labeling of GMO foods. A policy and system beneficial and effective for a particular country does not necessarily bring about the same results elsewhere.
South Korea depends largely on imports for agriculture products. If it strengthens the GMO labeling in a manner similar to the EU, the industry would have to spend more money to check imported materials and products, and the government would pay more for quarantine manpower and technology resources to license them. Production costs would naturally shoot up and so would public finances, and that would translate into higher taxes. Ideally, we could import more non-GMO farm goods, but they are much more expensive. Non-GMO farm production is decreasing worldwide, making supplies scarce and pushing up prices of organic and non-GMO grains and crops.
Other major grain importers in Asia like Japan and Taiwan also have similar GMO labeling systems to ours. Current labeling regulations are designed to suit agricultural importers like Japan, Taiwan and Korea. Advocates for stronger GMO labeling argue it is necessary for the consumers’ right to know and choose what they eat. But it can bring about unnecessary costs and concerns. Instead of copying policy, we must develop and accommodate a system that can best suit our needs and environment.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of food science and technology department at Sejong University.
By Kyung Kyu-hang