Malaysia to Enforce Labelling of GM Foods (19/4/2007)

EXTRACT: ''Such [U.S.] demands are unreasonable and if they are agreed to it would mean that the health and environmental concerns of Malaysians will be pushed aside for the benefit of foreign companies selling food containing GMOs.''


Malaysia to Enforce Labelling of GM Foods
Anil Netto
Inter Press Service, April 19 2007

PENANG, Apr 19 (IPS) - A long-awaited law to make the labelling of genetically modified (GM) products mandatory is expected to be finally passed in Malaysian parliament this month and come into force by the end of the year.

It has been a long and winding road for the Biosafety Bill, work on which began in 1996. Officials are now keen on getting the bill passed and it could not have come at a more critical juncture.

United States business lobbies, in their submissions to the U.S. Trade Representative, had earlier insisted that mandatory labelling ''should be firmly opposed by the U.S.'' in negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Malaysia. They argue that labelling food as GM would imply that such products were inferior.

FTA negotiations between the two countries have already missed a Mar. 31 deadline that would have allowed fast-track approval in the U.S. Congress under special presidential authority. Negotiators are nonetheless pressing on, meeting again this month in the U.S. to thrash out contentious issues.

Activists worry that industry demands during the Malaysia-U.S. FTA negotiations could threaten the new mandatory labelling law or result in it being further watered down or rendered ineffective.

''Such demands are unreasonable and if they are agreed to it would mean that the health and environmental concerns of Malaysians will be pushed aside for the benefit of foreign companies selling food containing GMOs,'' said S. M. Mohamed Idris, President of the Consumers Association of Penang, in a statement.

Apart from the Biosafety Bill, an amendment to Malaysia's Food Regulations under the Health Ministry, that would also require mandatory GM labelling, is under consideration.

Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang pointed out that the World Trade Organisation's Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade states that ''technical regulations shall not be more trade-restrictive than necessary to fulfil a legitimate objective''. Legitimate objectives would include ''prevention of deceptive practices, protection of human health or safety, animal or plant life or health, or the environment''.

''The prevention of deceptive practices includes product information and labelling, so it is clearly within our sovereign right to have mandatory labelling of GMOs and GM products,'' he wrote in his blog.

The Malaysian Cabinet appears to be standing firm. ''We will not allow our population to consume without being able to assess what they can or cannot take as food or medicine,'' Natural Resources and Environment Minister Azmi Khalid was quoted as saying. ''The country needs legislation and Malaysia seems to be one of the few countries in the lead that is putting the legal framework in place.''

Malaysia has been trying to develop its biotechnology sector and, in line with that, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has been promoting agro-business in the country.

Azmi said that a biosafety law was necessary as foreign biotechnology firms needed a proper legal framework to develop their businesses in the local environment. Under the law, a full disclosure of all the properties of GM products would be required while two advisory bodies that would approve imports of GM products had been set up.

Mandatory GM labelling would assure Malaysians who are particular about what they eat and drink on ethical, religious and health grounds that there has not been contaminated by genes from an unrelated species. Muslims are prohibited from taking pork, alcohol, and the meat of animals that have not been slaughtered according to Islamic rites; Hindus do not eat beef and many Hindus and Buddhists are vegetarians.

Those who have allergies would also be wary of GM food while many others would opt for non-GM or organic food if they had a choice.

There are also fears that Malaysia is under pressure to allow imports of heavily subsidised American rice -- some of which could be genetically engineered -- to Malaysia.

Malaysian farmers have protested against any attempt to further open up the domestic rice market to imported rice, prompting International Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz to assure them that rice was not on the negotiating table.

But activists point out there has been no assurance that the U.S. has agreed to exclude rice. ''In the absence of transparency in the negotiations that are going on, we have no choice but to assume the worst -- that is, rice is one of the items in the negotiations, and if the agreement is signed and sealed, then genetically engineered rice could be on our plates soon,'' Indrani Thuraisingham, chief executive officer of the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations, told IPS.

At present, Malaysia does not import rice from the U.S. It is about 65 per cent self-sufficient with the remainder coming from Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Under the Ninth Malaysia Plan, the aim is to achieve 90 percent self-sufficiency.

But there are concerns that the Biosafety Bill, which regulates the commercialisation of GM food and other biotech products in Malaysia, and the FTA could pave the way for more GM products to enter Malaysia as long as they are labelled.

The bill itself has come before parliament on more than ten occasions, observed Indrani, each time watered down a little. But she added that it was still better than nothing.

Even though Malaysia has no cultivation of genetifically engineered crops, GM food has already penetrated the local market. In one Malaysian study of soy samples obtained from traditional markets, grocery stores and supermarkets, tests showed that 18 out of the 85 samples (or 21 per cent) were positive for three introduced genetic elements. The samples that were tested positive were mainly raw beans and tofu.

Activists have also expressed concern about previous cases of contamination reported overseas involving GM rice from the U.S. such as the abandoned GM herbicide-resistant Liberty Link 601 strain which was found to have contaminated the popular 'Cheniere' variety. Because of such contamination cases, many countries have rejected U.S. rice, points out Indrani; ''so there could be dumping in countries with U.S. FTAs.''

The use of pesticides has also increased following the introduction of genetically engineered crops, warn activists.

Two years ago, the international Codex Committee on Food Labelling, meeting in Malaysia, was forced to defer a decision on mandatory labelling of genetically modified (GM) food. The U.S. and four other countries threw a spanner in the works even though mandatory labelling had received majority support among the country delegations present, including the Malaysian delegation.

Asia has big stakes in the GM safety debate because it has both a vast consumer base as well as the greatest number of farmers. But Asian countries are, thanks to pressure from activists, inclined to follow Europe in insisting on labelling. Thailand, South Korea and Japan are among countries that have labelling laws in place for GM products. On the other hand, populous countries like India, China and Indonesia already consider genetic engineering safe and have been developing their own GM crops.

Activists in Malaysia fear that even with mandatory labelling, consumers might not be aware of what exactly GM food is. Moreover, local rice farmers, who have been dwindling in numbers in recent years, could be on the losing end if import tariffs are reduced under the FTA from 40 percent to zero.

''Nowadays consumers are into cheap food. People go for the cheapest; they are not looking to support local farmers,'' observes Sarojeni Rengam, director of the Pesticide Action Network's Asia Pacific regional office based in Penang. ''There is a need to change attitudes and perspectives.'' (END/2007)


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