Field trials of genetically modified crops in Maharashtra will have far-reaching consequences
The Maharashtra government’s recent endorsement for the field trial of five genetically modified (GM) crops — brinjal, maize, rice, chickpea and cotton in the state — has set off fresh controversy around the issue. The central government, so far, has been going back and forth on granting permission for the field trials of GM foods. All this is happening against the backdrop of a highly unsatisfactory regulatory system that is under challenge in the Supreme Court and a report by the court-appointed technical expert committee that has recommended a 10-year moratorium on the commercialisation of GM foods.
Field trials are done as a prelude to the commercial release of GM crops. There is no system in place as yet for the labelling of GM foods, so what we are seeing is the government readying for commercialisation of GM foods without labels, in violation of India’s official policy.
India’s official position has been for mandatory labelling but it has failed to make any headway in implementing GM labelling and there is utter confusion among agencies with overlapping authorities and lapsed deadlines. The earliest position was taken by Codex India which was housed within the ministry of health and family welfare and subsequent to the constitution of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), has come under the latter’s jurisdiction.
At the international level, India had joined Norway and other countries to ask for mandatory labelling of all food and food ingredients produced by genetic engineering at the 27th session of the Codex Committee on Food Labeling (CCFL) in 1999. However by the CCFL of 2008, India had changed its position radically. This was a result of India signing the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2005 to promote among other things, biotechnology. The US is opposed to labelling GM foods and under US influence, India abandoned its insistence on comprehensive mandatory labelling of GM foods.
On the domestic front, two developments have taken place with respect to labelling.
The Directorate-General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) issued a gazette notification in April, 2006 by which it prohibited the import of any food product that contains GM material without the prior approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) or the Review Committee on Genetic Manipulation (RCGM). Further, if the imported food had GM components, it would have to be labelled. The DGFT issued another notification in July, 2007, which specifically disallowed the import of GM rice. All rice imports had to be labelled “GM Free” by the country of export.
In 2006, the ministry of health & family welfare woke up to the reality of GM food and food ingredients freely coming into India. It framed draft rules on labelling under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954 and introduced a new rule, applicable to both imported and domestically produced food. This Rule 37-E mandated compulsory labelling of GM food, including primary and processed foods as well as food ingredients, food additives and any food product that may contain GM material. Labels on imported food also had to declare that the food had been cleared for marketing and use in the country of origin. Predictably, the food processing industry reacted immediately and opposed the rule on labelling.
What follows this development is unclear. Apparently after two to three years of consultations, the health ministry stopped pursuing GM labelling and as it appears, passed the buck to the FSSAI which became operational by 2011. But as we will see, the confusion does not end with the establishment of the FSSAI. In fact it was confounded by the emergence of the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India (BRAI) Bill, proposed as the new regulatory system for GMOs. The BRAI bill has lapsed with the change in government but it may be revived in some form. In any case, since neither the GEAC nor the BRAI bill have the responsibility for labelling, presumably the FSSAI will have to frame rules and protocols for the labelling of GM food — a rather difficult and complex task for which the FSSAI seems neither willing nor perhaps has the capability.
The next act in the labelling saga was staged by the department of consumer affairs which promulgated the Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Amendment Rules, 2012 which mandated that “Every package containing the genetically modified food shall bear at the top of its principal display panel the words ‘GM’.” The FSSAI quickly opposed these rules because it felt that the department of consumer affairs was intruding upon its mandate but it has done precious little itself to develop any labelling standards.
The FSSAI has nevertheless constituted a panel on GM foods which produced a review of various labelling standards in different countries. The FSSAI report tends to favour voluntary labelling and echoes the view of the biotech industry that mandatory labelling will increase prices for consumers and may limit consumer choice because GM foods will be pushed out of the market as has happened in the EU.
Labelling reducing consumer choice would be a startling argument from any perspective but in this case, it is of a piece with the official Indian position retreating from its avid support for labelling GM foods. At any rate, nothing has ensued so far from the FSSAI report. As of today, India has no framework to implement the labelling of GM foods.
If India is planning to adopt GM foods, it must first ensure that there are appropriate systems in place. Operationalising labelling will be a very complex task given our fragmented and decentralised agriculture and food sector. Our food is not sold in convenient packages that can be labelled. It is usually bought loose from local shops and vendors. There must also be a legal regime for liability and redress. In its absence, who will be held liable for violations? Who will have to compensate organic farmers if their produce is contaminated by GM foods ? What if there is an accident and harmful GM material spills out into the fields or the markets, as has happened several times in the US? Who will be made to clean up the mess and compensate those who have been victims of the accident?
The author is a scientist and founder of the research and advocacy group Gene Campaign (www.genecampaign.org)
Published Date: Feb 03, 2015, DNA, Mumbai