US Using WTO to Push GM Food into India (3/8/2006)

GM ALERT: US Using WTO to Push GM Food into India
Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security, New Delhi, India

On April 7, 2006, the Government of India amended the Foreign Trade (Development & Regulation) Act of 1992 governing rules on import of genetically modified crops[1]. As per the amendment, imports of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for food, feed or processing, industrial processing, research and development for commercialization or environmental release would be allowed only with the approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC).

At the same time, all shipments including products containing GMOs have to carry a declaration stating that the product is genetically modified. If the shipment does not contain such a label and is later found to contain traces of GM material, the importer is liable for penal action under this Act. The changed rule came into effect on July 8, 2006[2].

However, under sustained pressure from soybean oil importers, the Government announced that soybean oil will be exempt from the labeling requirement till March 31, 2007[3].

Prior to this, on March 10, 2006, the Ministry of Health amended the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act (PFA) rules necessitating compulsory labeling of Genetically Modified (GM) food. The amendment stipulates that "no person shall except with approval of and subject to the conditions that may be imposed by the GEAC constituted under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, manufacture, import, transport, store, distribute or sell raw or processed food or any ingredient of food, food additives or any food product that may contain GM material in the country". Once the necessary approval has been obtained, all packages of the product will have to be labeled as containing GM food or derivatives.

It may be noted that the Health Ministry notification is only concerned with GM foods and does not cover GMOs and GM materials meant for other purposes like feed, research and development, industrial processing or environmental release.

Following these two amendments, the United States government filed two notifications with the World Trade Organization (WTO) in May 2006 (G/TBT/N/IND/12 dated 17 May 2006 and G/TBT/N/IND/17 dated 23 May 2006). Addressed to the Ministry of Commerce and Ministry of Health, these notifications sought clarifications about the amendments to Foreign Trade Act and the PFA. Reading between the lines, the US also has hinted at initiating action under the WTO Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) and Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary Measures (SPS) Agreements.

The US is seeking a scientific justification for both product coverage and measures laid down under the amendment. The US claims that the 1989 Rules under the Environment Protection Act (EPA) are vague and broader than any other existing biotechnology regulation across the world. With regards to import of GM products, they have questioned the rationale for seeking information on every shipment of the same product to be submitted to GEAC. Both notifications assert that these regulations are trade restrictive for countries like the US planning to export GM products to India.

As it is, the labeling requirement proposed under the amended PFA Rules is lax on various counts. In order to protect consumers' interests and also enable them to exercise choice, labeling ought to be based on a precautionary approach with zero tolerance for any GM contamination. However, the Ministry of Health's amendment requires producer/ importers to merely carry a label that states that the product "may contain" GM material. Instead of rigorous biosafety tests before allowing the import, the Ministry of Health is merely relying on the safety information provided by the importer.

Further, the legislation is coming at a time when facilities within the countries for testing products for the presence of GM are grossly inadequate. There is no laboratory in the country, which can undertake such testing. Moreover, testing protocols have still to be developed. Until such a system is put in place, it is obvious that the legislation in its present form is intended to legalize the import of untested GM food into the country. What makes it still worse is that the US is demanding that these lax rules be further diluted. In other words, the US wants India to lift all curbs on the import of GM products into the country.

It is well known that the US has at various forums been consistently blocking attempts to label GM products. So much so that at a meeting of the United Nations' Food Standards Committee in May 2006, the US had opposed "health as a Codex standard." It tried but failed to block discussion on the need for an international guideline to label GM products.

We all know that under severe pressure from the US the Codex Committee on food labeling recently deferred a decision to draft guidelines for GM food, something that has been bottled up for more than a decade now. At present, the move against GM labeling is limited to a handful of nations led by the US while consumer resistance across the European Union and Asia is persuading governments to enact strict labeling laws.

It therefore becomes obvious that the US is trying to arm-twist India into accepting GM foods. From the sequence of events unfolded above, and in view of what is happening elsewhere, it is very clear --

· that the US had tried in the past to force-feed Indians with GM foods in the form of food aid (during a natural disaster and through routine development programmes). India had resisted these attempts.

· that the US is once again trying to interfere with India's sovereign right to decide about its food and its safety.

· that the WTO is yet again being used by the US to further its own trade interests

· that the notifications are not only discriminatory but meant to browbeat India into submission as major trading partners of the US, such as Canada, Japan, the EU and Australia follow their own GM labeling protocols

· that the US does not respect the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which allows countries to enact internal legislations and set up mechanisms that will ensure biosafety

· that the SPS Agreement in the WTO is being conveniently used by the developed countries to further their commercial interests

Further, the recent contamination scandal in the US where Bayer's GM rice – not approved for consumption – was mixed with other rice varieties once again showcases the lax standards and near-absent monitoring mechanisms in the regulation of GM crops. With a lot of anger and furore being expressed within the US over GM rice contamination, there is all the more reason for India to create its own sovereign mechanisms to protect the health of its citizens and as well as protect the environment.

The civil society and consumer groups need to keep a watchful eye on any and every US move to dump GM food. In this context, the Coalition for GM-Free India urges the Government of India to put the interests of its citizens above trade interests. To begin with, the government should rely more strongly on the 1989 Rules of the Environment Protection Act and use a labeling regime to reinforce a moratorium on GM foods in the country.

For more information, contact:

Bhaskar Goswami, Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security, New Delhi. Mob: +91-98111-9135; Email: [email protected]

Kavitha Kuruganti, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad. Mob: +91-93930-01550; Email: [email protected]


[1] Condition No. 18 in Para 4 of Notification No. 2(RE - 2006)/2004-2009, 7 April 2006, Directorate General of Foreign Trade, Department of Commerce, Ministry of Commerce & Industry (accessible at

[2] Notification No. 4(RE - 2006)/2004-2009, 4 May 2006, Directorate General of Foreign Trade, Department of Commerce, Ministry of Commerce & Industry (accessible at http://dgftcom.nic.in/exim/2000/not/not06/not0406.htm)

[3] Notification No. 21 (RE-2006)/ 2004-2006 dated 20 July, 2006, Directorate General of Foreign Trade, Department of Commerce, Ministry of Commerce & Industry (accessible at http://dgftcom.nic.in/exim/2000/not/not06/not2106.htm)

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