What Malaysians Should Know About GMOs, and GMO Labelling in Malaysia

What are GMOs?


Genetically modified corn

According to the Ministry of Health of Malaysia, GMO (or genetically modified organism) is defined to be “an organism in which the genetic material has been changed through modern biotechnology in a way that it does not occur naturally by multiplication or natural recombination or both”.

While humans have traditionally tried to cultivate better crops with methods such as cross-pollination or cross breeding, genetically modifying organisms involve manipulating the genes of the organism directly. Genetic modification is often done through the insertion of a foreign gene from another species, creating what is called a transgenic plant or animal. Common transgenic plants include corn, soybeans, and cotton; transgenic animals are less widespread but include pigs, sheep and cattle.

GMOs bring important implications for human health and the environment. The debate for and against GMOs has been raging for years. The proponents of GMOs argue that genetically engineered crops are more resilient and have a higher yield, introduce fewer pesticides to the environment, and pose no real threat to human health. Genetic engineering is also able to bring about desired traits in organisms at a much quicker pace, while traditional farming would need several years to reach the same (or weaker) outcome.

On the other side of the fence, opposing voices argue that insufficient research on the topic means that the consequences of consuming GM food are largely unknown. The unnatural introduction of genes from another species may cause allergens to spread into non-allergenic food, increased antibiotic resistance, or increased toxicity. Genes extracted from animals (to be inserted into plants) raise ethical, religious and health concerns. With regards to the environment, GMOs threaten bio-diversity through contaminating non-GMO crops (through interbreeding), and creating “superweeds” or “superpests” that are resistant towards pesticides developed for widely cultivated GMOs. According to the Malaysian Organic Scheme, GMOs (and products derived from GMOs) cannot be used in any aspect of organic production and handling. There is no exception to this rule.

Information from both sides of the debate is readily available on the Internet. For those who are interested, the American Radioworks provides a fairly well balanced overview of the arguments.

GMO Labelling in Malaysia

Without taking one side or the other of the GMO debate, it is a consumer right to have more information about what you are buying and consuming. Malaysia is one of 64 countries in the world that mandate labelling on GM food. After reading through the guidelines on GMO labelling, we present to you some quick facts:

What are the regulations?

The regulatory framework with regards to GMOs covers pre-market approval, enforcement, and post-market monitoring. The related laws are:

  • Biosafety Act 2007 (Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, NRE) – to regulate the release, importation, exportation and contained use of LMOs (Living Modified Organisms), and the release of products of such organisms.
  • Food Regulations 1985, amended in 2010 (Ministry of Health, MOH) – to enforce GMO labelling.

How does the label look like? 

Click to enlarge:

The labelling requirements shall only apply to the three main ingredients in the ingredient list. For GMOs that have genes derived from animals and ingredients that have been known to cause allergies, the label will have to state the origin of the gene, like: “gene derived from (origin)”.

What are not labelled?

The product will not be labelled when GMO content is not more than 3% of the food ingredients, “provided that this presence is adventitious [i.e. by chance] or technically unavoidable.”

Exempted products include:

  • Highly refined foods e.g. refined oil, plant sterol, boiled sweet, sugar, corn syrup, honey and dextrin (other than that with altered characteristics).
  • When novel DNA and/or novel protein is not present in the final food:
    • Processing aids and food additives (e.g. dextrin).
    • Acidic foods (e.g. pickles and vinegar).
    • Salty foods (e.g. soy sauce).
  • Food from animals fed with GM animal feed (e.g. meat, milk, eggs).
  • Foods produced from fermentation using GMM (Genetically Modified Microorganisms) not present in the final products (e.g. vitamins, amino acid).
  • Foods produced with GM enzyme (e.g. cheese, bakery products produced with amylase).

However, products will not be exempted when the gene is derived from animal products and substances that cause hypersensitivity. Highly refined foods with altered characteristics (i.e. they have different characteristics from the same ingredient that has not been genetically modified, in terms of nutritional value, toxicity or allergenic properties) will not be exempted as well.

The labelling logic can be understood from these flowcharts (click to enlarge):

When will the regulations on GMO labelling be enforced?

The regulations will be enforced in July 2014.

It is important for the public to be aware of the regulations on GMOs, and the enforcement date. The enforcement date of GMO labelling has been delayed once already, from July 2012 to July 2014. When public awareness is low, it is easy for lobbyists to push for extensions over and over again, causing the enforcement of the regulation to be indefinitely delayed.

Join us this Saturday at CETDEM’s Hari Organik and learn more about GMOs (see event here). Magaeswari Sangaralingam from Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) will be there to talk about potential threats of GMOs.


  1. Guidelines on labelling of foods and food ingredients obtained through modern biotechnology, by Ministry of Healthy Malaysia
  2. Presentation slides from the Ministry of Health Malaysia, in MIFT Seminar “Genetically Modified Foods” held in UKM Bangi
  3. USDA Foreign Agricultural Service GAIN Report (8/9/2011)
  4. USDA Foreign Agricultural Service GAIN Report (7/6/2013)
  5. Skim Organik Malaysia(2007)


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