➤ This article was written in June 2013, for updates on the subject, check here.
If you follow the news from the China Post or the Taipei Times, you may already be familiar with the controversy surrounding soybean imports in Taiwan. Namely, it has come to the public attention that 90% of the imported soybeans are actually GMO, and are originally meant as pig feed. This information is not a recent discovery, but has gained more traction since last year, 2012.
For the conscientious globetrotting consumer, GMO regulations are quite a headache, with each country having a different legal stand on the subject. Are GMO products allowed for human consumption? Is it allowed to feed GMO crops to livestock? How about GMO labelling, in which countries is a legal requirement? If so, at what threshold (you’ll be sad to learn there’s no such thing as 100% Non-GMO) is the GMO label defined?
Sure, this is not everyone’s first worry when moving abroad, especially in places like Taiwan, where figuring out daily necessities is already puzzling enough, but it doesn’t hurt to be a better informed consumer. If you care about what you’re eating, and avoiding GMO soybean, then read on. I’ve tried to condense relevant information, gathered from various Taiwanese articles and my own experience, so I hope you enjoy the reading and learn something useful from it.
Why do I care?
I love tofu, in all of its kinds and forms, yes, that includes stinky tofu :). And since moving to Taiwan, soy milk has become my breakfast drink of choice. In the past, I never really worried about GMO food since the legislation where I lived in simply banned it. Once, while shopping for tofu at the supermarket in Taiwan, I noticed some packs with a Non-GMO label on it, and others without, but things did not click in my head. Around that period of time, prop 37, was starting to make some noise in the media, and so I also grew more curious about the state of GMO food in Taiwan, and took a closer look at the ingredients on my pack of tofu. Reading the list of ingredients, I noticed「黃豆 (含基因改造)」, meaning「soybean (contains GMO)」, gasp!
Though I am all for research and science, I’m absolutely not convinced that food grown out of GMO farming is all that safe, and do not support its application in mainstream agriculture. There are many reasons to support the anti-GMO cause, which I won’t go into here, but I highly recommend the documentary The World According to Monsanto, a great introduction on the subject.
Some facts about GMO food in Taiwan
- Currently, only soybean and corn, as well as their derived products are allowed for import to Taiwan and human consumption.
- No GMO crops are grown on the island, however, experiments are being conducted in lab-settings.
- Food manufacturers must indicate the presence of GMO ingredients if the food contains more than 5% of it.
Some facts about soybean in Taiwan
In Chinese, soybean is referred to as 「黃豆」(huángdòu) or「大豆」 (dàdòu).
Currently, Taiwan does not legally distinguish among the different grades of soybeans, that’s why I call it an informal classification. A great loophole allowing imported feed-grade soybean to make its way onto people’s plate.
How is feed-grade soybean used? And what is Select-grade 選豆?
- human consumption: the lesser damaged and bigger soybean grains are filtered out as Select-grade, meaning they’ll go to various food manufacturers to be transformed into tofu, soy milk etc…
- soybean oil: the rest of the grains are processed into oil. Interestingly so, despite the use of GMO soybeans to make oil, such indication will not appear on oil jugs because traces of GMOs become undetectable after the oil refinement process. Still, I personally don’t think we should jump the gun and consider such soybean oil as entirely safe for consumption.
- fodder for pigs: residue from the soybean oil process goes on to become (GMO) feed for pigs.
The greyed out information originates from the 上下游 blog, but I’ve yet to find the official source for the numbers mentionned. Planted surface area of soybean oscillates like a roller-coaster for reasons that I ignore, but I suspect that it may be tied with government subsidies. As a matter of fact, starting 2013, the Taiwanese government will start providing subsidies, 45 000 NT per hectare, for farmers growing crops like soybean, corn, etc.. With the rise of fuel cost, import of soybeans have also risen to the point of giving Taiwanese soybean farmers some space for competition, so it will interesting to see how the domestic soybean market will evolve in the upcoming years.
Where are the problems? Why a controversy?
Here are some issues raised by anti-GMO advocates:
- distinction of grade level: the Taiwanese government already distinguishes between food-grade and feed-grade level for corn, so why not also apply it to soybean? Consumers should have the right to be informed about it.
- shipping sanitary conditions, feed-grade vs food-grade: food-grade and organic-grade soybeans are properly packaged in individual bags prior to shipping, this prevents the grains from molding due to external factors such as humidity or whatever pollution is in the air. On the other hand, feed-grade grains are directly dumped in the ship’s hold, and after a lengthy trip across the Pacific Ocean, the ship will moor at the Kaohsiung port, where the soybeans grains will be “parked” , still in bulk, waiting to be packaged and dispatched to businesses. The hot and humid Taiwanese weather being conducive to molding or infecting soybeans, chemicals are sprayed in order to keep “protect” the soybeans.
- GMO label, threshold of 5% is too high: compared to the 0.9% in Europe, 3% in Korea and 1% in New-Zealand, Taiwan has followed in Japan’s footsteps by setting a 5% threshold which anti-GMO supporters consider too high.
- GMO food safety research: a big debate surrounds the safety of GMO food, research studies have been conducted from both sides to support their respective standpoint, but one important point is that no human-trial on long term consumption of GMO food has ever been done, for obvious ethical reasons. Hence, there’s yet to be a scientific conclusion about how GMO really affect human beings, and until the scientific community finds an answer and agrees with itself, we’ll be left to form our own opinion on the subject.
Change is happening
This year, during the annual Taiwan International Bakery Show, a small forum gathered a panel of scientists, industry experts and consumer advocates to talk about GMO, and make the public more aware of the issue. One of the guest that night was Mr. Wu-Shong Jan 詹武雄, the chairman of the Tofu Association. He shared about his 60 years of making tofu, and discovering that there was such a thing as grade classification and GMO for soybean. From that moment on, he has tried to persuade merchants at traditional markets and food manufacturers, to switch to Non-GMO soybeans. All those years, he felt as if he was alone on the battlefield, but at last, he has now found other allies, such as the influential Housewife Alliance 主婦聯盟, to support the anti-GMO cause.
Last year, in the tofu section of the supermarket, I remember noticing a small selection of non-GMO tofu on the top shelf, where customers usually don’t bother looking at. Then, earlier this year, I was pleased to notice that the range of non-GMO tofu had expanded, and was more conveniently arranged on the middle shelf. I can’t say if this is a trend across all supermarkets, but having places like Carrefour carrying more non-GMO products surely shows that there must be a growing demand from consumers.
On the corners of the streets, at those popular breakfast and late-night snacks shops, such as Four Seas Soy Milk 四海豆漿, I also started to see banners indicating the use of non-GMO soybeans. I haven’t noticed a price increase though, so I imagine that the soybeans used are simply food-grade level, and not organic, but still, this is a step forward.
The more I pay attention to what I eat, and the eateries I pass by on the streets, the more I seem to find businesses embracing the use non-GMO soybean. Sure, there are still too few of them, but slowly, change is happening.
基因改造 = 基改 (short version) = Genetically Modified
非基因改造 = 非基改 (short version) = Not Genetically Modified
The character 「非」means 「not」, certainly the key ideogram to look for if you can’t read Chinese. I only used tofu as an example in this article, but go to your nearest convenience store, pick up any food containing soybean, and you’ll surely see those words.
Thank you for reading this far! Comments or questions are welcomed! 😀
References, additional reading:
- 黃豆飼料級？食品級？別再傻傻分不清楚 (上下游, 2013/05/09)
- 豆腐公會理事長帶頭反基改：「非基改的豆腐太可愛」(上下游 , 2013/03/29)
- 為什麼御便當要讓我吃基因改造的黃豆？(上下游, 2012/11/02)
- 台灣餐桌上的黃豆，有 90％是美國豬隻吃的基改豆？(上下游, 2012/10/18)
- 基因改造食品宣導 Q&A (Taiwan’s FDA, 2010/12/08)
- 農業統計年報 101年 (Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture)
- Labeling of Genetically Engineered Foods (Colorado State University)
- Taiwan Tofu Association