SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea has for the first time bought genetically-modified corn for food, risking a backlash from consumer groups to secure cheaper grains.
With record high global wheat, corn and other food prices making governments increasingly anxious about staple supplies and quickening inflation, the debate over the merits and safety of GMO crops is taking on new urgency.
On Tuesday South Korea, one of only two countries in Asia to stick with more expensive non-GMO corn for food use, said it will import 50,000 tons of U.S. genetically-altered corn in May for manufacturing starch and sweeteners.
Trade sources said the decision was economic. Corn that has not been modified costs around $50 a ton more than the genetically-altered variety, an important factor when corn prices have more than doubled in the last two years.
But it has drawn ire from consumer groups, who say it will expose consumers to possible health risks, echoing European resistance to what lobby groups there call “Frankenstein foods.”
“If the companies go ahead with the move the groups will join hands and carry out campaigning and boycott products from those manufacturers,” said spokesman Kim Dae-hoon of ICOOP, South Korea’s largest consumer lobby group.
Daesung, Doosan Corn Products Korea, Samyang Genex and Shindongbang CP — which supply nearly 90 percent of South Korea’s corn starch and sugar — have signed a joint contract for the May purchase.
“They’ve decided to buy GMO for food to avoid an increase in prices for consumers,” said one agriculture trade source, adding that manufacturers will hope that the price issue will help neutralize criticism from anti-GMO lobby groups.
Governments around the world have been struggling with the inflationary impact of higher food and oil prices, with corn joining a long list of staples from vegetable oils to crude oil that have been hitting record highs.
The price of non-genetically altered corn was about $150 per ton on average in 2006 and has risen to more than $400 in recent months.
Avoiding GMO corn has also become increasingly difficult as major producers switch to varieties that offer benefits such as higher yields or drought resistance.
The global GMO planted area grew 13 percent to 252 million acres in 2006, and the number of farmers planting GMO crops rose 21 percent due to substantial economic, social and environmental benefits, according to the pro-GMO International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications
The bulk of commercial GM crops used in wealthy industrial countries ends up in feed for livestock.
While the United States is the world’s top supplier of biotech crops, consumers in Europe have shown skepticism and outright hostility.
The international biotech industry insists its products are safe and no different from conventional foods. It in an argument that has so far failed to convince many of the EU’s 27 governments.
Additional reporting by Lee Jiyeon and Jonathan Thatcher; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher