Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) study found the wide presence of GM ingredients in packaged food

Theme: Genetically modified food

 Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) study found the wide presence of GM ingredients in packaged food items sold in India.

What are GM foods?

GM foods involve taking genes (DNA) from different organisms and inserting them in food crops for the purpose of enhancing its productivity or increasing its immune power or nutritional and aesthetic values. There is a concern that this ‘foreign’ DNA can lead to risks such as toxicity, allergic reactions, and nutritional and unintended impacts.

Safety of GM Foods

 Safety of GM crops and products has been a matter of concern for human health. Risk assessment on a case-by-case basis is critical for a country-level decision to allow or restrict GM foods because various GMOs have different genes, which are inserted in multiple ways. Also, studies used to evaluate the risk must take into account different populations and geographies.

Safety of GM foods in India

In 2017, a Parliamentary Committee report that examined the impact of GM crops on environment and human and animal health identified huge gaps with respect to the safety of GM crops. It noted the following key issues:

  • There has been no Indian scientific study carried out so far to study the impact of GM crops on human health.
  • The government should reconsider its decision to commercialize GM crops in the country as it has not been scientifically proven that GM crops have no adverse impact on human health. It is relying solely on studies that have not been done in India rather than on our own population and in the context of our climate and environment.
  • It is very late in the day for the FSSAI to take a decision to label GM foods imported into the country. However, the committee strongly recommends that labeling on GM foods must be done with immediate effect.

Draft notification on labeling of GM foods :

  • It was issued by FSSAI in May this year which mandates that any food that has 5 per cent or more GM ingredients, shall be labeled, provided this GM ingredient constitutes the top three ingredients in terms of percentage in the product.
  • Despite these, most GM foods studied did not disclose the fact on the label. A few also made false claims of being GM free. Nearly 65% of the samples that were found GM positive did not disclose its genetically modified ingredients.

Criticisms against FSSAI:

  • Against draft labeling regulations: The exemption limit of 5 per cent in the draft notification of labeling is very relaxed compared to other countries such as the EU, Australia and Brazil, which have limits at or below 1 per cent. Also it is very difficult for government to quantify the GM content in all foods as the tests are prohibitively expensive and technically cumbersome.
  • FSSAI has not allowed any GM food on paper but has failed to curb its illegal sales: Since 2007, GM soybean and canola oils are being imported in India without the approval of FSSAI though GEAC had permitted its import.

Regulatory issues in the approval process for GM processed foods:

  • Since 1989, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has been responsible for approving commercial cultivation of GM crops as well as the manufacture, import and selling of processed foods made from GM ingredients. So far, Bt cotton has been approved for cultivation.
  • In response, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) requested the MoEF&CC to continue regulating processed foods until the FSSAI was ready to do so in a scientific manner. The notification was kept in abeyance until 2016, making the GEAC responsible for approvals of processed foods, with no accountability of the FSSAI in practice despite Section 22 of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (FSS Act) stating that GM foods shall not be manufactured, sold, distributed or imported until the FSSAI approves them.
  • Meanwhile, in 2013, the Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules, 2011 were amended to mandate that packages containing genetically modified foods bear the words ‘GM’ on its principal display panel.
  • This rule was inconsistent with the fact that GM foods are not allowed in India and in fact created the false perception that GM food was allowed.
  • The FSSAI’s new draft labeling regulation of April 2018 aims to address the issue through labeling of GM foods.

Way Forward:

  • The FSSAI must identify all GM products being sold in the market and prosecute companies and traders responsible.
  • It must set up a safety assessment system for approval of both domestic and imported GM foods.
  • India’s GM labeling regulations must be based on stringent exemption limit and qualitative screening as an enforcement tool meaning that all products wherein GM ingredients are used must be labeled even if the final product does not contain GM DNA or protein. The threshold limit for GM labeling exemption should be set at one per cent GM DNA and not on the weight of the ingredient.