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Do you know how much of your food is genetically modified?

By Jessica Lim
Straits Times
March 14, 2008

Half of corn, canola oil and soya bean sold here are genetically
modified. But most S'poreans don't know as the law here does not require
manufacturers and retailers to label GM foods

THAT soya bean milk drink you had for breakfast could have been made
from genetically modified (GM) beans.
Lots of food in your larder - from nachos to poultry to baby food and
soya milk - could also contain ingredients whose genetic make-up has
been altered in a bid to make them plumper, tastier or resistant to

But it is unlikely that you will ever know.

The reason: Unlike dozens of developed countries around the world,
Singapore does not require manufacturers and retailers to label GM foods.

While the foods have not proven to be unsafe, their sale has sparked
protests from Indonesia to the United States, driven largely by fears
about >the long-term effects of tinkering with Mother Nature.

According to Singapore's Genetic Modification Advisory Committee, about
half of the corn, canola oil and soya bean sold in Singapore are
genetically modified.

Dr Wong Kwok Onn, head of the survey and safety review branch at the
Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), said that Singapore's reliance
on imported food means GM foods 'could be anywhere on the market now'.

Consumers, though, have little way of knowing what they are buying.

Singapore laws allow manufacturers and importers to leave out or even
remove labels that would inform consumers they are buying GM foods.

Many companies, Dr Wong said, do just that because they are 'worried
that Singaporeans might not accept them'.

While the issue is a major one around the globe, it is only just gaining
steam here.

No one has complained to Singapore's consumer watchdog about the lack of
labelling, but some shoppers The Straits Times spoke to were concerned
when told that they might be buying GM foods.

Mrs Khairina Mohd, 45, a mother of two, wants labels on such items.

She said: 'Like most other educated Singaporeans, I want to know what I
am putting into my mouth. It's a basic right.'

Mr Daniel Koh, 36, a psychologist, said: 'Just browsing online, I can
tell the issue is getting out of hand globally and there are more GM
foods around.

'We are consumers too, and I would like to know more about the food I am
eating and the long-term effects, if any.'

Although no side effects from eating GM foods have emerged, the
long-term effects of bioengineering have not been completely evaluated,
said Mr Peter Droge, head of genomics and genetics at Nanyang
Technological University.

Still, some Singaporeans couldn't care less if GM foods are labelled.

Businessman Goh Keng Wee, 53, is among them.

He said: 'It does not matter much to me. If it is safe and tastes good,
why should I care?'

Proponents of genetic modification view it as the answer to food
shortages. Yields are higher and less water, energy and fertiliser are
used in the production process, Mr Droge explained.

Currently, 51 countries - including China, Canada and the United States
- produce GM foods.

More than two-thirds of modified American corn, for example, is exported
to Asia and Africa.

Labelling of these foods is compulsory only in the European Union and in
about 30 countries, including Japan and Australia.

It is not compulsory here because of the lack of international consensus
on the labelling of GM foods, said Dr Wong.

However, that could change following a meeting next month of an
international body that sets standards for the food industry, according
to government officials.

limjess@sph. com.sg