People have a right to know

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People have a right to know

Genetically modified organisms, the source of genetically modified foods, refers to any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of biotechnology. Genetically engineered crops were created for several reasons - better resistance to pests and harsh environmental conditions, and longer shelf life. The most widespread GE crops produced and consumed around the world are corn, soybeans, cotton and canola.

Koreans have long been consuming food with GMO ingredients without knowing it. Soybeans and corn account for the lion’s share of imported genetically modified foods. Genetically modified crops represent 75 percent of imported soybeans and 50 percent of imported corn. Considering that 90 percent of soybeans and 99 percent of corn is used in other foods, we may be exposed to greater consumption of genetically engineered crops than we imagine.

But the problem is that consumers are not aware of how much and how often they consume genetically engineered foods. Labeling allows people to know the ingredients and make an informed choice about what they eat. Most GMO imports are contained in processed goods. Labeling is encouraged, but many products are exempt. Tougher mandatory labeling rules must be applied to enhance the consumer’s right to know and choose.

For example, soybean oil is 99 percent genetically modified material. Under the current labeling regulation, manufacturers do not need to disclose GMO ingredients if inserted genes or modified proteins are not left in - or can be extracted from - the final product. Food processors claim they only extract oil fat from genetically engineered soy that does not contain the modified genes or proteins. They make the same argument for processed corn products. Flavors from corn flour filter out proteins and leave just carbohydrates and sugar content. But starch sugars go into countless food products.

The current labeling regulations also exempt labeling of GMO ingredients if they are not one of the five largest raw materials in processed foods. Genetically engineered corn ingredients in bread, snacks and beverages, as well as GMO soy protein in soy milk, baby food, sausage and hams, therefore, can be omitted from the labeling requirement. Also, it’s hard for consumers to easily identify GMOs on labeling because GMO is referred to as “genetic recombination.”

Local consumer groups have been campaigning for clear GMO labeling regardless of whether the materials are identifiable in the final products. They demand strong labeling regulations like the European Union standards. The Korea Food and Drug Administration drew up revised regulations to toughen labeling of foods that contain genetic alteration of crops to the Office of the Prime Minister in 2009 but has yet to receive a response.

Those opposed to stronger labeling argue that the move would be an unnecessary cost when GMOs have not been proven to be hazardous. But scientific debate over the long-term safety of GMOs is ongoing. French scientists last September revealed that rats fed on GMO corn suffered tumors and other complications including kidney and liver damage. In the two-year lab study, rats fed on a diet containing NK603, genetically modified maize produced by a U.S. chemical company, died earlier than those on a standard diet.

The NK603 seed has been exported to 21 countries, including South Korea. Various governments questioned the validity of the experiment, but the controversy remains. Until we know for sure, discretion and protection are necessary through legal labeling rules to enhance rights and choice over the foods we buy.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor of science and engineering in the Liberal Education Department at Seoul National University.

By Kim Hoon-ki
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