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3-Food: GM food debate begins to bite in Asia

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TITLE:  GM food debate begins to bite in Asia
SOURCE: Reuters, by Michael Byrnes
DATE:   November 16, 1999

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GM food debate begins to bite in Asia

SYDNEY - Asia, the biggest eatery in the world, is, according to
this story, beginning to be swept by the global storm over
genetically modified (GM) food as apathy bows to rising consumer
concern and regulators chew on billion dollar decisions. Japan
and Australia, regional leaders in GM regulation, have, the story
adds, both recently decided to label GM foods. But both are also
showing signs of nerves over the details of GM control.

One Australian bureaucrat advising the government on GM issues
was quoted as saying, "The cost is that you could lose a market 
- billions of dollars -- overnight if you make the wrong
decision. There is a need to find a reasonable balance between
commodities and consumers where you can lie in bed at night and
be sure that you will not glow in the dark." The story notes that
Australia's A$22 billion (US$14 billion) a year farm goods trade
and its free-trade government see deeper issues than whether corn
flakes on supermarket shelves should carry warning labels. As
World Trade Organisation talks loom on agricultural trade
liberalisation, fears are dawning that large chunks of the
hundred billion dollar-plus world food trade will move to non
tariff barriers -- and GMs could be the perfect ploy.

Australia and New Zealand authorities, after first delighting the
consumer movement by edging toward stringent labelling of food
with even a trace of GM content, last month postponed a decision
on specifics. Mara Bun, Australia's fiercest consumer advocate,
was quoted as saying, "It's a backward step. It's very much
a...breathing space, which means marketplace inertia will
dominate. This is a business as usual signal and very

The Australian Food and Grocery Council was pleased, describing
it as "another critical reality check for effective and efficient
labelling regulations." The story goes on to say that exporter
Australia, which sells bulk food mostly to Asia, faces make-or
break decisions in billion dollar industries including meat,
wheat, sugar, and canola oil, executives say. All remain GM-free
but are poised to move to GM production, canola in 2001, the
others if competing countries make a move first.

So far Australia has approved only one major commercial GM crop,
cotton. In November it called for public comment on 13 GM
commodities undergoing safety assessment, including corn, cotton,
canola, sugar beet, potatoes, maize and high oleic soybeans.

Japan, which survives on imported food, faces the dilemma of
balancing consumer demands with GM productivity gains. So far
Japan has approved 22 varieties of six GM crops for import and
sale, including corn, soybeans, rapeseed or canola, potatoes,
cotton and tomatoes. Authorities are discussing approval of
canola, cotton, sugar beet and corn.


Rules are on the way in Asia to regulate genetic foods, with
Australia and Japan taking the initiative. The region remains in
a three-way split. Big importers such as Japan and Korea are more
interested in consumer labelling and its effects on imported
food. China is more interested in possible transgenic
productivity injections into its own food production while
countries such as Australia and Thailand are interested in both

The following updates GM food regulations in Asia:


JAPAN decided in August that foods made with genetically modified
(GM) crops be labelled beginning April 2001. Many food products
are exempt on the ground that DNA or protein resulting from gene
alteration cannot be detected.

Labelling is required where GM material is one of the top three
ingredients, in terms of weight, and the weight of GM material is
five percent or more of the total weight. This is less stringent
than the EU rule requiring warning labels when at least one
ingredient contains more than one percent GM material.

Japan has approved 22 varieties of six GM crops for import and
sale, including soybeans, corn, rapeseed, potatoes, cotton and
tomatoes. Products in which GM DNA or protein cannot be detected
with current technology, such as vegetable oil and alcoholic
drinks, are exempt, as is animal feed.

An advisory committee to Japan's Minister of Health and Welfare
is discussing whether to approve seven new GM varieties:
herbicide-resistant rapeseed, herbicide-resistant/insect
protection cotton, herbicide-resistant sugar beet and varieties
of herbicide-resistant corn. The health ministry is considering
tightening regulations to allow it to ban non-approved GM
imports. Currently Japan does not test imported farm products for
unapproved GM crops.

SOUTH KOREA's parliament enacted a law in July to regulate GM
food labelling. The government is yet to decide which products
will be required to be labelled. Guidelines on the issue are
promised by the end of 1999. A Korea Consumer Protection Board
survey showed 94.7 percent believed warning labels on GM foods
was necessary.

AUSTRALIA/NEW ZEALAND: The Australian and New Zealand governments
decided in August to order mandatory labelling of all genetically
modified foods. The law is expected to apply from the end of
2000. The Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) is
presently conducting safety assessments of 20 commodities in
broad categories including soy, canola and cottonseed oil. There
are no requirements for labelling of these products at present.

On November 2 ANZFA called for public comment on 13 GM
commodities currently undergoing safety assessment: corn, cotton,
canola, sugar beet, potatoes, maize and high oleic soybeans.

MALAYSIA is typical of most Southeast Asian nations in having no
present laws requiring labelling of GM foods.

THAILAND, also with no present labelling laws, is concerned over
food exports to Europe. The 1999 seizure of a container of Thai
canned tuna in oil by Greek customs, which demanded proof the
exports did not contain GMOs, highlighted the potential threat to
Thai exports and the need for proper labelling. Thai fears were
reinforced last month by a scare over a cargo of imported grain
which contained GM corn.

CHINA remains silent on the GM foods issue, although it is far
more interested in boosting agricultural productivity through GM
crops than introducing strict labelling laws.


CHINA is moving strongly into producing transgenic cotton,
planting around one million hectares of GM cotton this year.

SOUH KOREA is attempting to move into producing GM foods, with
Nong Woo Seed Co Ltd, for example, opening a genetic engineering
department to develop GMO seeds.

THAILAND plans to introduce GM cotton, papayas, tomatoes,
chillies and vegetables and imports product such as U.S.
soybeans, believed to be genetically modified.

AUSTRALIA has two GM crops, cotton and carnations. About 30
percent of the present Australian cotton crop is GM. More GM
crops are under trial and active consideration.

UNITED STATES proportion of main crops genetically engineered:
corn   33 pct
soy    50 pct
cotton 50 pct.


The U.S. is the world's leading producer of genetically modified
crops, while Japan is a major importer of corn and soybeans and
prepared food products made from them.
U.S. total agricultural exports:    US$ 51.7 bln 1998.
U.S. agricultural exports to Asia:  US$ 15.5 bln 1998.
GMO-involved crops exports to Asia: US$  4.8 bln 1998.
U.S. agricultural exports to Japan: US$  9.1 bln 1998.
   Of this,
   coarse grains                    US$  1.6 bln
   soybeans                         US$  0.9 bln
   cotton                           US$  0.3 bln

Japan imported 2.45 million tonnes of soybeans in the first half
of 1999, 86.2 percent from U.S.; and imported 9.13 million tonnes
of corn in the first half, 96.5 percent from the U.S.

-| Hartmut MEYER
-| Co-ordinator
-| The European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering
-| Reinhaeuser Landstr. 51
-| D - 37083 Goettingen
-| Germany
-| phone: #49-551-7700027
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