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Strengthen regulation of GM food; ‘Ban GM food’-demand unreasonable

But the regulatory landscape must be founded on scientific rigour

The provision in the draft regulation that holds that FSSAI approval of a specific GM-origin food/ingredient holding unique identification from the Biosafety Clearing House (established under the Cartagena Protocol), OECD, etc, will be universal needs relooking.
The provision in the draft regulation that holds that FSSAI approval of a specific GM-origin food/ingredient holding unique identification from the Biosafety Clearing House (established under the Cartagena Protocol), OECD, etc, will be universal needs relooking.

The anti-GMO activists’ demand that the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) scrap its draft Food Safety and Standards (Genetically Modified or Engineered Foods) Regulations, 2021, and summarily disallow GM food/ingredients, is certainly ill-founded and unscientific. The activists contend that the move to allow food products in the market with a “contains GMO” label, if any of the individual ingredients of a product making up 1% of more of the product is of GM origin, is a tacit approval of imports of GM food. But, the fact is the Indian consumer is already exposed to GM-food products, directly and indirectly. The Centre for Science and Environment reported in 2018 that 32% of the 65 food products available in the market that it tested had GMO content; nearly 80% of these products were imported. Besides, GM-crop based animal feed and imported animal and plant produce that likely have GM origins/exposure are currently marketed in India, though very likely adhering to provisions of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Against this backdrop, labelling GM origin food benefits the consumer, helping her decide between a GM product and a non-GM alternative. That said, the food standards & safety regulator—and the government—must take a nuanced view of the objections. India has the laboratory capacity to detect as low as 0.01% GM content. So, the 1% threshold is indeed too high; the standards must not just enable food safety but also choice for the discerning consumer—quite in the spirit of the strict organic certification standards, or even the Delhi High Court’s recent directive that food businesses must make explicit the vegetarian/animal origin of each ingredient in a dish/food product. Indeed, the FSSAI should mandate the explicit mention of GM content, with the packaging indicating the exact degree to which the product contains each individual GM ingredient.

The provision in the draft regulation that holds that FSSAI approval of a specific GM-origin food/ingredient holding unique identification from the Biosafety Clearing House (established under the Cartagena Protocol), OECD, etc, will be universal needs relooking. First, the FSSAI needs to clearly list the jurisdictions/authorities whose approval will be acceptable for the purposes of this provision; ‘etc’ must not allow approvals by authorities that may not have an acceptable rigour of testing—indeed, even between developed jurisdictions, there is hardly any uniformity of such rigour. Second, in the context of consumables such as gut biome enhancers, microbes-based food supplements, which may contain multiple Living Modified Organisms, there is a need to conduct local studies to determine that the interplay of such organisms is safe. Regulation 4(12) in the FSSAI draft holds that GM-based ingredients can’t be used for any infant food. It is true that running safety tests on infants is a near-impossibility. But, if the FSSAI has reservations about GM-content in infant consumables, should this not hold for at least the years of early development?

Genetic modification playing a larger role in food technology is unavoidable in the long run, and in many cases, could even be desirable. For a country like India that aims to boost nutrition levels among its vulnerable population, a product like golden rice—rice fortified with Vitamin A—is manna; India has high levels of Vitamin-A-deficiency-related vision loss. Without a scientific attitude towards GM-foods, we won’t be able to benefit from the development of genetically-engineered golden rice. At the same time, the regulatory landscape should inspire faith among the masses through scientific rigour. For that, FSSAI must relook its draft regulations and plug gaps.

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