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Loopholes in GMO Labeling: Do You Know You Are Eating GMO?

If you want a fried egg for your breakfast, you should first put cooking oil on the frying pan, gently rotating it to cover the whole area. If you want doenjang stew, a typical Korean dinner made with fermented soybean paste, you should put doenjang in a pot with water to boil it. Basic ingredients for most Korean cuisines such as cooking oil, doenjang, or soy sauce can be found at almost everyone’s home. If you take a look at the labels of these ingredients, however, they are most likely to say “imported soybean,” which means they are mostly made from a genetically modified organism (GMO). GMOs have been ingrained into our lives, much beyond our expectation. Unfortunately, in Korea, a number of people are consuming a staggering number of GMOs, while they never realize what they are consuming. Two months ago, a law forcing companies to label whether a product was genetically modified was enacted in the United States (US). The US is also in line with Korea in that they produce and consume a huge amount of GMOs. Following the enactment of this law, the Sungkyun Times (SKT) explores the current state of genetically modified (GM) food and the labeling of GM food in Korea.

What Is a GMO?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), GMOs can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material, especially deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by selective breeding and natural recombination. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another between non-related species. Hence, GMOs do not include the organisms whose genetic makeup has been modified within the same species. A cherry tomato, or a seedless watermelon for instance, are not called GMOs since their genetic material has been modified within the species through traditional crossbreeding methods. An organism is called a GMO only if its genetic material is combined with that of another different organism. To make it clear, a tomato whose genetic material is combined with a particular genetic material of other microorganisms or animals that does not exist in the original tomato is called a GM tomato. Combined with particular genes, GMOs are developed to perform two functions: herbicide resistance and insecticidal function. Genetic modification was first established in order to maximize crop yields while decreasing the use of pesticides.

GMOs soon became commercialized since Calgene, a Californian company, had developed a GM tomato named Flavr Savr in 1994, which was more resistant to rotting than the original tomato. Since then, the commercialization of GMOs has been growing rapidly, and the land used to cultivate GM crops has expanded by more than a hundred times. Currently, 35% of plant seeds around the world are genetically modified. Moreover, 79% and 32% of soybeans and corns, respectively, are GMOs.

GM Food in Korea

icoop.or.kr/Foods in the refrigerator that are most likely to be GMO food

Korea is well known as the world’s top importer of GM food, taking the f i r s t ranking in importing GM food in 2015. Imports of GM crops are al so constantl y rising. One study conducted by the National Assembly Research Service d e m o n s t r a t e s that the import of GM crops has increased by 38.1% in 2015 compared to 2008. GMOs are accordingly seeping into the life of Koreans, which is revealed from the statistics that per capita consumptions of GM soybeans and GM corns are 44kg per year. Given that per capita consumption of rice in the same period is 65kg, the figure is a considerable amount to eat. This substantial amount of consumption derives from the fact that GM soybeans and corns are basic seasoning ingredients for soy sauce and gochujang, or red pepper paste, which are essential for traditional Korean cuisines, together with various types of processed foods such as bread, snacks, and many others. Since basic seasonings and processed foods have always been an integral part of the Korean diet, Koreans cannot help but consume GM foods. Almost 80% of Canola oil is Canadian GM Canola oil, which is advertised as the number one healthiest oil and the best oil to give as a holiday present.

Controversy Raised about the Safety of GM Foods

This year marked the 20th anniversary for the commercialization of GMOs. Nevertheless, controversy about the safety of GM foods still exists. Last year in March, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is an affiliate organization under the WHO, designated glyphosate, the principal component of most herbicides, as a second-level carcinogen. Since it has been widely used in GMO cultivation all around the world, people are expressing deep concerns about the safety of GM foods. Additionally, a research team in France has analyzed the health impact of GM crops throughout the entire life of mice in 2012. As a result, 70% of female mice that consumed GM corns on a daily basis died early, and mice that consumed only a handful of GM corns also received fatal damage on their liver and kidney.

Due to the short history of GM foods, it is true that nobody can assure how the long-term consumption of GM foods may affect the human body. Quite apart from this uncertainty, however, 64 countries in the world are now prohibiting or tightening the labeling system of GMOs. On the other hand, the problem arises in Korea that consumers have no way to know whether the food they are consuming is genetically modified.

Labeling GMO Food

Loopholes in GMO Labeling Regulation


Article 12 of the Food Sanitation Act states that when a food producer utilizes genetically modified cereals as the main ingredient of their foods, the container or package must be labeled either as a genetically modified food product or as a food product containing a GMO. The problem arises since there are exemptions in the current act. Even though the product is made from a GMO, the labeling is unnecessary if a GMO is not included in five main ingredients of the product. Moreover, the food producer can also avoid labeling if there is no GMO in the final product. To put it simply, they do not need to label the product as a GM food if GMO DNA or proteins are not detected in the final product. Last year in December, the act was revised, expanding the five main ingredients to all ingredients. The latter portion of the article however, has remained, which means that companies can still evade their responsibility of labeling GM foods if there is no GMO left in the final product. A number of consumers have criticized the article as flawed, since GMO ingredients disappear in most cases after the ceaseless processing of certain foods. Soybean oil, for instance, is not liable for labeling even if it is made from one hundred percent GM soybeans, since no GMO DNA or proteins are detected. Accordingly, soy sauce and cooking oil, which are soybean oil-based, are still not liable for labeling GMO ingredients.

With the sense of insecurity about the safety of GMO foods, people are demanding for the observation of their right to know. The claim has come to the fore after the humidifier disinfectant issue, in which constant use of a toxic humidifier disinfectant resulted in more than 400 victims because they never knew it was toxic. Consumers are requiring labels that indicate whether the food product contains genetically modified materials.

Endeavors to Establish GMO Labeling System

Previously, consumers had no way to know about the current state of GMO importers since the Korean Food and Drug Administration (FDA) kept this information secret for security reasons. The Citizens Coalition of Economic Justice, however, raised objection to concealing the information, and started to urge the FDA and business enterprises to reveal the information since 2013. Finally, two months ago, the Supreme Court of Korea forced the Korean FDA to disclose the information. The court ruled that the right of self-determination or the range of options for food should be ensured by providing enough information related to the product. Subsequently, the decision served as a momentum to the pure labeling system, for it made the opportunity for consumers to have access to information about their food and to decide whether to buy or not based on it.

Consumers’ Cooperatives have also contributed to encouraging the GMO labeling system by implementing a “self-labeling system.” To be more specific, they voluntarily label non-GMO foods in order to satisfy the consumers’ right to know. For instance, they are operating a market called “Zero GMO market” since September last year, in which only non-GMO products are sold. Unfortunately, their effort was hindered by an amendment prohibiting the labeling of food as non-GMO.

Another Consumer Cooperative, iCOOP, is conducting the “Non-GMO Action Heroes” campaign which aims to promote the GMO labeling system especially to the young through Social Networking Services (SNS). Non-GMO Action Heroes recognizes the potential harm of GM foods and supports the pure labeling system of GMO. Pancake mix made from domestic wheat, fair trade coffee, and some other non-GM foods are given to people who apply to the campaign, and applicants are asked to send postcards about what they feel after consuming the non-GM foods mentioned above. They can also upload pictures supporting the GMO labeling system on their SNS.

Labeling System in the US

Three months ago on July 29, a bill that necessitated all foods to label whether or not they contain GMOs was enacted in the US. The FDA in the US stated that GM products are harmless to the human body, but the US Congress decided to endorse the consumers’ right to know. The bill, however, aroused controversy, since it allowed companies to use QR codes as a form of labeling. In order to read QR codes, people have to put an effort to install a smartphone application, or access the Internet to see the information. Most consumers do not bother identifying every single QR code on the products they are buying. Furthermore, some people, including the elderly, low-income, and less-educated do not use smartphones which means they do not have access to such information in the first place. For these loopholes, a number of people call the bill the “DARK Act,” short for “Denying Americans the Right to Know.”

commondreams.org/Consumers in the US Claiming to Ensure Their Rights to Know

Behind the enactment of the bill lies the scheme of Monsanto, a worldwide American corporation, developing and producing GMOs, preserving 90% of the patents related to GMOs around the world. In May 2014, the bill obligating the labeling for all GM foods was proposed in Vermont, which was clearly against Monsanto. Following Vermont, some other states also began to introduce the bill in their legislation. As such, Monsanto devised to follow the national bill for GMO labeling, which can make existing state laws to be no longer in force. Monsanto finally accomplished its aim since the recently enacted law obligates labeling for all GM food, while allowing its companies to conceal the information through QR codes. As a forefront of the GMO labelling system, Korea can refer to the case of the US, while bearing in mind that the same loophole should be avoided.

GMOs obviously have their positive aspect since they can contribute to the world’s food security. On the other hand, nobody can say for certain that GMOs are definitely harmless to human body. Regardless of whether GMOs are harmful or not, the consumers’ right to know has to be defended. In order to protect consumers’ food sovereignty at the dining table, the establishment of a GMO labeling system is necessary.

박세연  seyon1031@naver.com

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