[Special report part I] South Korea’s imports of GMO food at an all time high

Posted on : 2015-01-23 14:34 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Public growing more uneasy about potentially harmful food products that aren’t properly labeled or regulated
 staff photographer)
staff photographer)

In 2014, the amount of genetically modified food imported to South Korea surpassed 2 million tons for the first time. Total imports of all genetically modified organisms (GMOs), including animal feed, increased from the 7 to 8 million tons of previous years to around 10 million tons. This is the biggest tally since 2008, when related laws were passed to regulate GMOs.

According to Korea Bioinformation Center about GMOs that the Hankyoreh accessed on Jan. 11, 2.07 million tons of foodstuffs containing GMOs imported by South Korea in 2014 (as of the end of November). The majority of the genetically modified food was farm produce, including corn (1.1 million tons) and soybeans (970,000 tons). Genetically modified soybeans are generally used to make cooking oil, while corn is typically turned into sweeteners.

Japan is the only country that imports more GMOs than South Korea. Some agricultural experts suggest that, if only GMOs for human consumption are taken into consideration, South Korea could be the biggest importer in the world. Most of the GMOs that are imported into Japan are used not as ingredients for human food but rather in animal feed.

South Korea has become one of the world’s top two importers of genetically modified food largely because it produces so little of its own cereal. Key statistics released by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs in 2013 show that only 23.6% of cereals used in South Korea are grown domestically. Domestic production is even lower for soybeans (10.3%) and corn (0.9%), two of the four major genetically modified crops.

The South Korean dining table was long ago taken over by snacks, bread, and cooking oil produced from American soybeans and Brazilian corn created through human manipulation of DNA. Despite this, most consumers have no way of knowing whether the products that they are consuming contain GMOs.

Loopholes mean no labels

Over the course of six weeks between June and July 2014, the MOP7 Korean Citizen’s Network - which is composed of civic groups including the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice (CCEJ) - carried out a survey of domestic processed foods commonly found in supermarkets to see whether they are labeled for GMOs.

The network surveyed 503 kinds of cooking oil, seasonings, pastries, and snacks, but they could not find a single one that was marked as containing GMOs. The reason for this is the large number of loopholes that allow Korean food producers to evade their responsibility to label genetically modified food.

“It’s true that we are importing genetically modified soybeans and canola, but most of these cereals are used to make soybean oil and canola oil,” said a representative for CJ Cheil Jedang, South Korea’s largest food producer, in a phone interview with the Hankyoreh.

“Even if we wanted to import normal soybeans that have not been genetically modified, this has been made difficult by the drastic reduction in the amount of land around the world used to cultivate non-GMO cereals. If we did manage to import it, the price of products would increase considerably,” the representative said. Naturally, CJ Cheil Jedang does not label its cooking oil as containing GMOs.

The importance of labeling genetically modified food is related to safety issues. Since genetically modified soybeans and corn began to be commercialized in the mid-1990s, controversy has raged about the safety of genetically modified foods. The debate between certain scholars who claim that GMOs can cause cancer, sterility, and allergies and GMO producers who dispute these claims has yet to reach a definite conclusion.

The Korea Biosafety Clearing House (KBCH), a research institute supported by the state, is adopting a wait-and-see attitude. “Because of the short history of the development of GMOs, it cannot be said with certainty what results long-term consumption of GMOS could have on the human body,” the institute said.

Imports of GMO food products.
Imports of GMO food products.
How do they get away with it?

The reason that most South Korean food producers can get away with not labeling the cooking oil, bread, and snacks made with genetically modified cereals is that the GMO labeling regulations are flawed.

In the regulations, genetically modified produce is put in a separate category from genetically modified food products and additives. Since the majority of GMOs imported to South Korea are distributed in the form of processed foods, it is the latter of the two categories that has more of a direct impact on consumers.

The position of the Korea Consumer Agency and other consumer advocacy groups is that the standards for labeling genetically modified food products and additives as laid out in the current Food Sanitation Act are more concerned with protecting the profits of the food industry than with ensuring consumers’ right to know.

Article 12 of the Food Sanitation Act states that when a food producer uses genetically modified cereals as the main ingredient of cooking oil or a snack, the container or package must legibly be labeled either as a genetically modified food product or as a food product containing genetically modified soybeans.

This is how the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) and the food industry back up their claim that South Korea has strict regulations for labeling GMOs.

The problem is the exemptions for labeling such products. Even if the food product is made using genetically modified cereals, if there are no GMO ingredients in the final product - that is, if no genetically modified proteins or DNA can be detected - the company need not label that product as being genetically modified. Another exemption is made for products in which GMOs are not one of the five main ingredients.

Even though food manufacturers import tremendous amounts of genetically modified soybeans and corn each year and use them to make cooking oils and sweeteners, it is hard to find products in South Korea that are labeled as including GMO soybeans or corn. One reason is that genetically modified DNA and protein cannot be found those products, such as cooking oil and sweeteners.

The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) explained, “If no GM DNA or proteins are detected in the final product, then we don’t have any scientific means of testing for the presence of GMOs.” The argument is that real-world constraints prevent the detection of GMOs even when ingredients are tested. Indeed, a Feb. 2014 report by the Korea Consumer Agency (KCA) on GMO labeling system improvements found that only 44 of 108 (41%) GMOs approved at the time for import to South Korea were quantitatively testable. More than half, in contrast, fell in an administrative blind spot in terms of testing for the presence of specific ingredients.

The food industry hasn’t been dissuaded by the holes in the labeling system.

“Some consumer groups have been calling for the kind of across-the-board GMO labeling adopted by the European Union, but every country has its own labeling system to suit the practical conditions there,” said Kim Jeong-nyeon, head of the Korea Foods Industry Association’s food safety department, in an interview with the Hankyoreh.

“We in the food industry abide strictly by the GMO labeling standards specified in the Food Safety Modernization Act,” Kim stressed.

The situation, with the MFDS and administration making no efforts to fix a broken labeling system and the food industry turning to that system instead of offering complete information on GM foods, is causing growing GMO food fears for the South Korean public.


By Choi Sung-jin, staff reporter


Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


Cooking oil made entirely from imported corn being sold without any label identifying it as a GMO product. (by Tak Ki-hyung, staff photographer)

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