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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

AsiaweekTimeAsia NowAsiaweek story

JANUARY 21, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 2

Seeds Of Division
Nature run amok or future cornucopia? Consumers face the furore over bio-engineered foods
By FONS TUINSTRA Shanghai



Marcus Oleniuk for Asiaweek

Here's something to chew on: Without realizing it, most of us have eaten genetically engineered foods in some form or another for several years. The U.S, which allowed commercial planting about five years ago, is the world's biggest producer of genetically modified crops, mostly in the form of corn, oil rapeseed or canola, and, significantly for Asians, soybean. Even though most of the stuff is fed to animals, plenty makes it to the stores - 60% of processed foods in America is now estimated to contain GM ingredients. That means it is in grocery items ranging from canned soups to breakfast cereals, all of which are exported to Asia. And no one has been reported ill or died from eating them.

All the same, popular suspicion about the safety of bio-engineered foods is spreading across the region. Hong Kong resident Debbie Hung reflects some of those concerns. "The thing is we may not know the repercussions until some 30 years later," says Hung, who has two children, aged four and five. "It is okay for adults. Even if we develop cancer 30 years from now, we would have lived to a ripe old age. The biggest worry is our kids eating them; they are only starting their lives."

The impact of such sentiment on business can be immediate. Consider what happened when a government-funded consumer group in South Korea announced on Nov. 9 that over 80% of the several dozen beanpaste brands it tested contained engineered soybeans. Sales at hundreds of mom-and-pop operations making tubu, as the paste is known, reportedly plunged the next day. (Pulmuwon, the only big tubu manufacturer, says its products are GM-free and is now suing the consumer body.) In the spectrum of attitude between "unsafe at any price" and "don't care," the majority in much of Asia falls into the category of "don't know." In China, where access to information is restricted, awareness can be low even in quarters where consciousness is usually high. "Genetic manipulation? Never heard of it," says a spokeswoman for the Beijing-based group Friends of Nature.

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That's not the case in Japan. Sensing the public mood, some food retailers were offering non-GM products two years ago. The clientele has continued to swell. A recent survey in Tokyo confirmed what stores and food manufacturers already knew: 80% of consumers polled were worried about the safety of GM foods, with 70% saying that they preferred not to buy such products altogether. That's the kind of signal no business can ignore. Which is why the country's leading supermarket chain, Jusco, introduced a line of GM-free goods last September, including staples such as natto (fermented soybean) and tofu as well as salad dressing and cornflakes. The response surprised even Jusco. Sales of tofu labeled non-GM went up 10%. "That made us realize the importance customers place on disclosure," says one executive.

Retailing rivals such as Mycal quickly followed suit, as did suppliers. Among them: Tohato, a manufacturer of corn snacks and the three beer brewers, Kirin, Asahi and Sapporo. Tofu and beanpaste-makers, typically small operators, are sticking no-GM labels to their goods too. "If we don't do anything, business will grind to a halt," says one soy-sauce producer. City education councils, which are responsible for the quality of food served in public schools, have been asking their suppliers to steer clear of GM foods.

Hong Kongers are apparently even prepared to pay a premium to eat non-engineered foods (see story). Of course, what people tell a pollster does not always correspond to real life. Decisions at the checkout counter may turn out to be quite different. But at least one major supermarket chain, Park'nShop, plans to offer its customers a choice. Store-brand items are to be tested and labeled by the end of the month (the latest tests allow Park'nShop to detect ingredients in quantities as low as 0.2% of total genetic material, it says). Farms and distributors of fresh produce can also expect to be quizzed on what seeds they use.

Just a decade ago modern biotechnology, mainly in the form of genetic engineering, was being hailed as the next big thing in science. Buzzwords like biotech revolution surfaced. Scientists in the rapidly developing field dreamed of stealing key components from nature's engines to assemble even more wondrous souped-up crops.

The new and improved GM varieties promise dazzling benefits. Grains can be engineered to thrive in soils with high aluminum levels or to withstand long periods of being submerged in water, which means farming could be extended to flood-prone areas and other marginal lands. Corn inserted with the Bt gene is able to make a bacterial toxin to fend off borer insects, reducing the need for pesticides. Vaccines can be made by designer banana trees, eliminating the difficulties of delivery to remote areas. And the stuff sure goes down a lot better than a pill or a jab. Rice is being engineered to make beta-carotene, which is converted to Vitamin A in the body - a big plus in communities suffering deficiency. In the case of oil palm, trees can be manipulated to produce more unsaturated fatty acids. In short, bio-engineering promises fewer chemicals, higher yields, better nutrition and health.

Asian governments have embraced biotech programs, and none more enthusiastically than the most populous nations. The secretary of India's biotechnology department, Manju Sharma, explains succinctly: "How else can you feed a billion people in the 21st century? We have to provide food and nutritional security to our people. But there is limited arable land and excessive use of pesticides. India has to switch to the bio-engineering route." Ditto for China, which, local officials say, now has the fourth largest area in transgenic plants under trial (after the U.S., Canada and Argentina).

Is GM food better quality? China and other developing nations don't have decades to work out this problem, says plant geneticist Chen Zhangliang. Indeed, it was China, not the U.S., which was the first country to introduce commercialized transgenic crops in the early 1990s - a virus-resistant tomato - though Western biotech giants such as Monsanto and Novartis lead the field. According to a foreign consultant, Beijing's aggressive GM program really took off only a couple of years ago. The spur: a heated "Can China Feed Itself?" debate following a report by the U.S.-based Worldwatch Institute. Despite Chinese dismissal of the publication, he says, it prompted a nation-wide discussion among agriculture specialists - and a rush into bio-engineering research.

The mainland already has half a dozen GM plants grown commercially: two varieties of Bt cotton (one locally developed, the other by Monsanto), two types of tomato (including a variety with extended shelf-life), a virus-resistant sweet pepper and a color-altered petunia. Safety is a prime consideration, says Chen. In developing the sweet pepper, for instance, researchers spent about $12,000 on animal tests. The result? "We found no change in sperm cells, weight and metabolism of the rats."

Page 2: So what's the fuss? >>

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