By deregulating GM food imports, the goverment has endangered public health
One outcome of the Indo-US deal on Agriculture appears to be the deregulation of the GM (genetically modified) foods sector. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has through a notification withdrawn the requirement that importers of GM foods must first take permission from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), India’s premier regulatory body in the sector of genetic engineering.
This means that a variety of genetically engineered food products would have entered the market after September 11, 2007, when the notification came into force. The US is the major producer and exporter of processed GM foods. Such products would be primarily be those containing soybean, corn, cotton seed oil and mustard, unless they come in from China, in which case, they could include some vegetables.
The government notification is a significant departure from the standing Indian policy in this field. Until now, in view of the known health risks that are associated with GE (genetically engineered) foods, the government guidelines had required that import of GE foods could take place only after intervention by national agencies and any handling of GM foods was to be done only after these were labeled as such.
The regulatory oversight that existed prior to the government’s new notification was necessary and appropriate since it had allowed India to monitor the entry of food products produced by a new technology that is known to produce toxic and allergic compounds. The Indian regulations which made it necessary for permission to be taken from national agencies, allowed government to monitor the entry of GM products into the country. These regulations had also allowed India to check that food products rejected by other countries in Europe, Africa and Middle East were not being dumped on us.
The arbitrary withdrawal of the regulatory oversight without any scientific reason and without any consultation with a range of stakeholders that are engaged with GE technology and policies associated with it, is a dangerous development. It will benefit the producers and exporters of GM foods and pose health dangers to the Indian population.
Such a move is inexplicable, especially at a time when scientific evidence is mounting from laboratory tests in various parts of the world, that genetically engineered foods can cause serious damage to health. Consequently, we need to upgrade our food testing systems and make them more stringent and comprehensive, not dismantle them, as the government is doing. Instead of strengthening our systems to ensure that no foods reach the market that have the potential to damage health, the government seems to have decided to withdraw all opportunities to test and regulate novel and controversial foods.
It is also a matter of considerable concern that unfettered access to unknown foodstuffs is being allowed in the absence of a legal regime for liability and redress. India has still not introduced a law on liability for this sector, even though it is required to do so by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. This means there is no law in the country that can fix responsibility and allow compensation claims if something should go wrong with the environment or with animal and human health , from the cultivation and consumption of genetically engineered crops and foods.
The new notification will in effect provide unrestricted entry to untested foods of dubious origins, especially since the imported GM food does not have to be labeled. This denies consumers the right to exercise free choice in the matter of the food they wish to eat. This unfortunate move is therefore in violation of the Consumer Protection Act of India that grants consumers the right of informed choice.
The government's notification also goes against India's long standing commitment to mandatory labeling of GE foods, a position the Indian delegation has consistently maintained in international negotiations, particularly at the WHO-FAO led Codex Committee on Food Labeling. These developments, both the dilution of India’s position on mandatory labeling and the deregulation of the GM food sector, appear to be curious in light of recent political events.
Is the move to deregulate the GM crops and foods sector linked to the pressures brought by the Indo-US deal on Agriculture? It is ironic that the future of the Indo-US nuclear deal, the reason why India gave concessions in the agriculture sector and entered into the iniquitous deal with the Americans, is uncertain, but the agriculture deal is moving ahead, at the cost of public health in India.
The writer is founder, Gene Campaign