The Hankyoreh | 3 April 2007
S.K. reportedly agrees to nix testing U.S. genetically modified crops
Seoul struck deal in order to gain concessions in FTA, sources say
South Korea has reportedly exempted U.S. foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) from safety tests in the Korea-U.S free trade agreement struck on April 2, a move that Korean environmentalists criticised as the government "selling off" the health of the nation.
Seoul reportedly made the decision to exempt U.S. GMOs from safety tests in order to draw concessions from Washington on opening its textile market to Korean imports, sources said. The exemption of U.S. GMOs from safety testing was called contradictory in light of recent efforts by the Korean Government to place more strict regulation on such products.
Many experts have raised safety concerns over GMOs, hybrid crops produced through cross breeding, with international efforts underway to control the cross-border movement of such items. The GMO controversy stems from some studies saying they may be hazardous to the health of consumers, especially over the long term. The European Union in particular has been cautious about the growth and sale of genetically modified crops, with several strict regulatory measures still in place after a six-year ban on GMOs was lifted in 2004.
Related to GMOs, the South Korean government announced a plan on March 29 to require all agricultural products to bear labels as to whether they have been genetically modified, so that consumers can make an informed choice about what they are eating. Currently, only four vegetables — potatoes, corn, beans, and bean sprouts — are subject to the regulation. The government is also planning to conduct safety tests on GMO-based animal feed, as Japan and the European Union have done. In addition, the government is moving to ratify the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and is currently preparing related regulations to implement the global pact, which is designed to monitor cross-border movement of such crops.
Paradoxically, the FTA safety test exemption on U.S. GMOs comes amid all of these efforts by the Korean government to regulate and monitor the sale of genetically modified crops.
Experts worry that such favored treatment of U.S. GMOs would inevitably cause the government to revise its efforts to step up regulation of genetically modified foods.
"If we make an exception for GMOs from the U.S., one of the world’s largest GMO exporters, it would be merely a perfunctory act to sign and implement the Cartagena Protocol," said Lim Ji-ae, an environmentalist. "This means that we will have to eat GMOs whether we want to or not, with no guarantee for our safety."
The U.S. is not a member of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, both of which are intended to monitor GMOs. A total of 189 nations have joined the convention, and 132 countries have ratified the protocol, which went into effect in September 2003.
Just as it has never ratified the Kyoto Protocol to fight climate change, the U.S. government tends to avoid such regulatory agreements due to mounting pressure from local agriculture, which sees such pacts as obstacles to business operations. According to Korean statistics, the U.S. is the world’s largest GMO producer, with 55 percent of its arable land being used for their production.
The exemption of U.S. GMOs from safety tests will also open the floodgates for U.S. genetically modified corn, critics say, which has been banned from being imported since July 2002. U.S. corn was approved for animal feed in 2000 but created a stir in the Korean market when it was found to have been sold by Korean distributors for human consumption instead.
Korea grows its own genetically modified products, including corn, as a small percentage of its total crops.
"With growing concerns over GMO safety and a series of scientific evidence toward its danger, importing genetically modified goods from the U.S. without safety tests and due approval procedures is tantamount to putting our health in jeopardy," Lim said.