by Ahn Mi-Young

Seoul,12 Nov 99 (IPS) -- Son Yoon-Hee no longer reaches out for the bean paste cakes she usually gets at the supermarket, though they are cheap and make a delicious big bowl of bean soup to share with her husband and seven-year-old son.

That's because consumers like Son, 35, learned that the soybeans used in the bean paste or "tubu" are likely to have been made from genetically modified seeds.

On Nov 9, the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement (KFEM), the nation's major state-funded consumer group with 60,000 members, collected dozens of the "tubu" brands, tested them and found that 82% were made from genetically-modified beans.

The next day, "tubu" sales plummeted by 40 to 80% at some 630 tubu makers nationwide.

"I do not think that I will buy it again, unless I'm sure that it is made of domestic bean," says Son. "Even the thought of having fed my boy and my husband with beans that may cause cancer and weaken resistance makes me shiver."

Like consumers in Europe and neighbouring Japan, South Koreans are waking up to the realisation that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are much more commonly used in their daily food than they thought.

The knowledge has come as a shock, and consumer groups are demanding that the government require labelling of products that use genetically altered material.

"In Korea, it is still optional to attach the GMO label on the farm products, making none of these products with GMO labels. We must make it mandatory," says Lee So-Young, manager of the environmental group Green Cross.

On Oct 30, 12 civic groups staged a "GMO-free food street festival" in order to collect signatures saying 'I agree to the adoption of mandatory GMO labelling'.

Critics also say that the issue of GMOs and labelling is not just about health -- but about trade as well.

Thus, Korean campaigners against further opening up of the food market in the November meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have taken up the GMO issue too.

"GMO-labelling is a tough ride ahead," Lee says, "as they (the government) are afraid to spark a strong pressure from the U.S., the major exporter of the GMO farm products, which would then place them into the troubled trade friction."

Japan and Australia, among others, have labelling requirements but supporters of labelling products worry that their efforts may be portrayed as putting up barriers to free trade by key exporters of affected products. In the US, more than 50% of US- produced soybeans is now genetically engineered and about 30% of corn is grown from altered seed.

This means a good amount of its exports of these have GMOs as well. Consumer groups here say that some 90% of soybean and corn used for making their favourite dishes such as "ramyon" or instant noodles, apart from "tubu" are imported mostly from the U.S.

Meantime, the public outcry over genetically modified food is causing concern among makers of products suspected of using GMOs, such as those that make corn snacks, corn oil, popcorn or bread, that their businesses will suffer as well.

Indeed, "tubu" makers are crying foul in the wake of plunging sales of what used to be popular food. They say they are victims too, as they have no other choice but to use imported soybeans, which are cheaper and more widely available than domestic ones. In 1998 alone, 1.04 million tonnes of genetically modified corn and 390,000 tonnes of soybeans in the U.S. entered South Korea. Most were used in food products such as spicy soups, potato snacks and beer, according to a government report to lawmakers in July.

Amid public opposition however, the government food agency shrugs off their concerns about risks that activists say comes with GMOs. Critics say GMOs come with environmental and health risks, including increased toxicity, increased exposure to allergens and antibiotic resistance.

But officials of the Korea Food and Drug Administration say: "GMO is scientifically proven as safe to eat. In the absence of a scientific testing method to verify whether a processed food like paste bean cake is made of GMO or not, the consumers' hasty conclusion may only backfire by confusing consumers."

But public anger here has been all too real. In October, hundreds of angry demonstrators stormed the headquarters of a major "tubu" maker, Pulmoowon, in southern Seoul. "Call back and destroy every GMO-made bean paste cake that is threatening the health of our family," they demanded. The KFEM that led the demonstration also urged the government to mandate the GMO-labelling of products. It also says it will sue Pulmoowon for neglecting to let consumers know that they are using GMOs.

Lately, Korean resistance to GMOs has also been riding on activists' campaign against what they see as western pressure to pry open the country's rice market, long a bone of contention between East Asian countries like Japan and Korea with western governments.

On Oct 12, some 400 representatives from 331 civic groups gathered in downtown Seoul to protest further pressure to liberalise South Korea's food market, which traditionally has been closed to outsiders.

"The mounting western pressure to further open our rice and farm market is threatening to uproot domestic farm infrastructure, to hurt the food security, as well as to undermine our farmers' sovereignty," adds Kang Tae-wook, an activist who helped launch a "grassroots federation" against WTO negotiations on farm market opening.

At the Uruguay Round meeting in 1993, the full opening of the Korean rice market was given a moratorium until 2004 of the minimum market access (MMA). Under this, Koreans had to start importing rice from overseas. This year, some 100,000 tonnes of rice, or 2% of market share, came mostly from South-east Asia.

Whether South Korea is given more time to adjust to opening up after 2004 is up for discussion at the meeting of the world's trade ministers at WTO.

Thus far, the federation has publicly pledged to boycott the production and shipment of GMOs, and to lobby the government to enact a law regulating the use of GMOs. It is drafting a proposal on this in time for the Seattle WTO meeting.

"Although it is not yet scientifically proven that GMO is harmful to the human body, consumers should be granted a choice at least -- to take the risk or avoid it," says Moon Eun-sook, manager of the Citizen's Meeting for Consumers. (SUNS4551)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS) .