The Biology of Food in Singapore

In this contributed post, Madison Jones writes about how genetically modified foods are imported in large quantities by Singapore, but that the lack of consistent labelling of these foods is often overlooked or completely ignored by consumers. 

Over the past decade genetically-modified foods—often known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs—have been making a splash in markets around the world. Singapore does not produce any GMOs, at least not yet. It often imports them from other countries, however, which has led to much debate and political posturing when it comes to safety and consumer choice. The country’s stance is generally liberal, as government officials tend to view GMOs as just as safe as their naturally-grown counterparts. Imports must go through a somewhat rigorous screening process to enter the marketplace, but once there, there are virtually no restrictions.

Nearly any food can be genetically modified, though scientists typically only cultivate “altered” foods for a specific purpose. Rice, corn, and soybeans are three of the more commonly experimented-with foods, all three of which are in high demand in Singapore. Most of the GMOs the country imports in these categories come from the United States, where farmers and researchers have long been looking for ways to make crops more resistant to things like disease and certain pesticides. Resistant crops often cost less to grow and harvest, which results in a lower end-price to the consumer.

The Singaporean government is generally receptive to GMO imports, though the process is not without its checks. Anyone wishing to introduce modified imports into the marketplace must first submit a detailed proposal describing the food and its history to a special “subcommittee on the release of agriculture-related GMOs.” The subcommittee scrutinizes every application under a principle of “substantial equivalence.” This principle assumes that if a modified item is “substantially equivalent” to one that exists naturally, the two can be treated as equals when it comes to safety.

This reasoning follows the teachings of the World Health Organization, which maintains that the majority of GMO foods are safe for consumption. Not all consumers agree, however. While some in Singapore continue to debate the country’s relatively lax import standards, much of the debate centers around labeling.

Singapore currently has no labeling restrictions for GMO foods, which means that consumers have little way of distinguishing a product that has been helped out by science from one that has been allowed to grow naturally. “GM food labeling is a complex issue,” Singapore’s Genetic Modification Advisory Committee (GMAC) has said. “The local authorities will work to ensure that GM foods commercially available in Singapore are safe for consumption, and will also continue to monitor international developments closely to ensure that Singapore’s labeling requirements are up to date.”

Up-to-date rules may be important for safety, but have little impact on consumer choice. “The lack of clear labeling standards for GM foods in Singapore, and in many parts of Asia is worrying,” Bhavani Prakash, an environmental activist, said in an editorial on the Eco Walk the Talk website. “Nearly 90 percent of US soya and 75 percent of US corn are genetically modified. Singapore definitely needs better labeling of GM foods so that consumers can decide what is best for them,” she wrote.

 The debate about GMOs, whether in Singapore or elsewhere in the world, is unlikely to let up anytime soon. There are significant concerns on both sides of the aisle, and a lot of different interests are at stake. Though GMOs are likely to remain a facet of the international market for some time, the on-going debate about safety, choice, and clear identification means that the coming years should bring consumers better information about what exactly it is they are eating and buying.

Madison Jones is a writer for a biology education website where she talks about how biology colleges in the U.S. are preparing students to deal with such issues, in addition to providing statistics and interviews from expert biologists where education in this realm is headed today. 


2 thoughts on “The Biology of Food in Singapore

  1. Here is the government’s response to my Question in Parliament –

    Question for Minister for National Development on Labelling of GM Food in Singapore – Parliament Session Monday 14 May 2012

    Ms Faizah Jamal: To ask the Minister for National Development if he will provide an update on the review by the Genetic Modification Advisory Committee on the labelling of genetically modified (GM) food and when the public can expect GM food to be labelled.

    Mr Khaw Boon Wan:

    There is no international consensus on mandatory labelling of GM food. Most countries do not require such mandatory labelling. This includes Singapore.

    GM food labelling is a complex issue as it has adverse implications on food trade and food prices. Cross-border enforcement is also challenging.

    Our Genetic Modification Advisory Committee (GMAC) and the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA) are active participants in the international discussions under the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC). This is the international body on food standards set up by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation.

    At its most recent session in 2011, the CAC accepted that countries would have different approaches for labelling GM food, and adopted a guidance document stating the relevant Codex texts for labelling such foods. Our GMAC and AVA will ensure our food labelling requirements are aligned with these international standards.

  2. Hi Madison, thanks for your article. It raised my eyebrow when you used the word ‘liberal’ to describe the government’s stance on letting GM food(s) into the market, especially considering what are liberal/liberalised in this country and what are not.

    @ Faizah, thanks for sharing the minister’s response. It seems that many things are still a challenge to this government, and that it’s also a question of pririties. Perhaps this post by Alex Au can serve to help illuminate the paradoxes and ironies:

    I like my apples preferably non-GM; maybe we can ask the good folks at the GMAC and AVA, and those holding ministerial positions to first have a bite of something like the sharp-edged apple (in the photo accompanying Madison’s post) as they debate the finer points of labelling GM foods in Singapore.

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