US Presses Korea to Loosen Zero Tolerance of GMOs in Organics

The United States Trade Representative (USTR) backed by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) is trying to persuade South Korea to loosen its zero tolerance policy of genetically modified material in organic food products. OTA says the policy is hurting exports of US organic soybeans and related products to that country.

“Out of step with everyone else”
According to Katherine DiMatteo, OTA executive director, the USTR has been in discussions with South Korean officials about the policy, but so far no change has been made.

In March 2005, South Korean consumer groups pressed the Korea Food & Drug Administration (KFDA) to change its policy regarding GM material in organic products. The new policy stated that GM food or food additives shall not be used or detected in organic products. The rule applies to both domestic and imported organic products.

DiMatteo says South Korea’s position runs counter to organic standards with regard to “adventitious” GM material in organic foods. “Organic isn’t about testing, but is about the process and verification that GM seed isn’t used and taking precautions that GMOs are avoided.”

Further she says South Korea has a three percent tolerance for non-GM products. “Having a non-GMO level at three percent and setting organic at zero ignores the practical realities of farming practices, pollen drift, and contamination,” she says.

DiMatteo says the European Union’s recent proposal to set a 0.9 percent threshold for GM contamination of organic should send a signal to South Korea that they are “out of step with everyone else.”

Hurting US organic exports
US grain suppliers say the zero tolerance policy is reducing their exports to South Korea.

“It certainly has impacted our sales,” says Kate Leavitt, international division representative, Sunrich.

“We had business in South Korea, but we no longer accept the risk of having it rejected,” says Lynn Clarkson, president, Clarkson Grain. Clarkson tells South Korean buyers that products will be tested for GMOs before export, “but after that it is their responsibility.”

“At zero tolerance, I’d be surprised if they get anything from the US,” says Clarkson.

Leavitt also says the policy is unrealistic. “Certified organic is a process, and it doesn’t mean zero tolerance.”

(February 2006)