The push for tougher legislation requiring labels on consumer products that contain genetically modified organisms has struggled to gain momentum for years in South Korea, which depends heavily on imports to satisfy its demand for corn and soybeans.
Calls to introduce stricter GMO labeling rules have been persistent, but President Moon Jae-in has yet to fulfill his campaign promises to stop the use of GMO products in schools and to require transparency from firms that use GMOs in their products.
Rep. Kim Seung-nam of the ruling Democratic Party brought the issue to the fore again by proposing a bill on Sept. 7 that would require all food, food additives and health functional foods with GMO ingredients to be clearly labeled as such.
He also proposed a bill that would obligate schools to notify school governing bodies comprising parents and educators whether the meals they provide to students contain GMOs.
In recent years a growing number of schools have opted for non-GMO ingredients, but it is difficult to verify whether processed food used in school meals contain GMOs.
As of March this year, 11 local governments, 14 cities and 16 districts are promoting non-GMO school lunch projects.
Rep. Kim said he expected the bills to help protect the right of consumers to safe food.
“We should at least provide consumers accurate information on whether GMOs are used, even if we put aside the issue of potential health risk of GMOs.”
The country introduced mandatory labeling in 2001, but only for products or processed food in which genetically modified DNA or proteins derived from it can be detected.
This means that vegetable oils, sugars and soy sauces in which no genetically modified DNA or protein remains due to a thorough refining process are excluded from labeling obligations.
Five bills that could have closed the loophole were submitted to the 20th National Assembly, only to expire automatically with the end of the parliamentary term.
The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety states on its website that it evaluates the safety of GMO foods in accordance with “stern standards.” It also collects and analyzes data on GMO products to assess the possibility of harm to consumers, it says.
“Many research groups around the world have already demonstrated that GMOs are not harmful,” it said.
Still, the public demands the right to know whether their purchases contain GMOs.
According to data from Korea Biosafety Clearing House and the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, South Korea imported some 10.21 million tons of GMOs in 2018 as ingredients for food products for humans or for animal feed.
GMOs imported for food -- mainly canola, soybeans and corn -- accounted for 21 percent or 2.18 million tons.
The country is believed to be one of top four GMO importers in the world, said the food agency, adding that its actual ranking cannot be confirmed as some countries don’t disclose accurate statistics.
It is believed that about 80 percent to 90 percent of all corn and soybeans imported into Korea are from genetically modified crops.
GMO soybeans are used in processed foods such as cooking oil, soy sauce and soy milk. GMO corn often becomes starch or syrup and makes its way into snacks, drinks and ice cream.
In September last year a consultative group organized to strengthen the law on GMO product labeling was disbanded, as food companies refused to accept demands from citizens’ groups to make changes.
The body was launched in 2018 in response to a petition calling for the adoption of tougher GMO labeling rules, which was signed by some 200,000 people and submitted to Cheong Wa Dae.
By Park Han-na (email@example.com