In a study released in the last week of July, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) says it tested 65 food products and found 21 of them testing positive for material from genetically-engineered (GE) plants. Of these, 16 were imported. It has raised an alarm and has called on the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to ban such food products, though India releases GE crops for cultivation (only cotton so far) after they are found to be safe for humans, animals and the environment. Vivian Fernandes interviewed the CEO of FSSAI, Pawan Kumar Agarwal. Here is an edited and annotated version:
Is the manufacture, import and sale of food containing genetically-modified (GM) plant material disallowed in India?
There is a regulatory vacuum as far as GM food is concerned. The Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 specifically authorised FSSAI to come out with regulations. Until 2016, the environment ministry had issued an order under their act (the Environment Protection Act), which kept the provision that we could regulate it, in abeyance. Once that was withdrawn, we started working on how this could be regulated. We have a scientific panel which has met several times and the regulations have been finalised. The threshold above which we have to label (food containing GM material) was part of the labelling regulations. Now that we are coming out with GM regulations, that provision is being taken out and inserted here.
When will the GM regulations be notified?
Very shortly. These will be put up for consultations. They are draft regulations.
Will you insist on labelling of GM food?
That is the proposal. But the draft regulations will have to be first approved by the government.
Why have labelling at all? It is not mandatory In the United States and Canada, for instance.
Different countries have taken different views. The scientific committee and the authority (FSSAI) have taken a view that it must be labelled. Other than the US, several countries have mandatory labelling requirements. Even in the US, it is voluntary. (The US Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require mandatory labelling of food derived from bioengineered plants because it says it isn’t aware that it poses a different or greater safety concern than food developed by traditional plant breeding. The geneticist Deepak Pental of Delhi University says labelling is meant to alert consumers to a health concern. GM crops are approved only when they are not toxic or allergic to humans. Labelling would prejudice the consumer against the product.-Vivian)
A regulatory vacuum means the manufacture, import and sale of GM food is not disallowed?
It is not disallowed. The view of the food authority is, based on scientific evidence across the world, that there is no verifiable health impact of GM food vis-à-vis conventional food on humans. Obviously, if certain (GM) food is to be allowed, it has to be approved by GEAC (Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee) and then only it will come to us and we will do the risk assessment, just as we do with conventional food before clearing it for consumption.
What is the need for FSSAI to do separate risk assessment, when bioengineered plants have to pass two levels of biosafety trials before being cleared for cultivation?
That is biosafety for growing the crops. They do it for its impact on the environment. We do it for its impact on human health.
Sir, the Biosafety Research Level-I and Level -II trials are meant to ensure that the crops which GEAC recommends for cultivation are not toxic or allergic to humans and animals. Their safety to the environment is also assessed. Will there be a parallel risk assessment by FSSAl, before GM crops are allowed to be cultivated?
For cultivation, the GEAC gives approval. But if any food contains GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) or LMOs (living modified organisms), then their (GEAC) approval will have to be obtained first and then they will have to come to us.
Sir, 96 percent of the cotton grown in India is genetically-modified Bt cotton. Most of our cottonseed oil comes from Bt cottonseed. We have been eating it since 2002 or 2003. In all these years, why did we not test the oil for GM material?
As I said, the FSSAI Act is of 2006. It became operational in 2011. Till 2016, we could not act (for the reasons mentioned earlier). We have now put some regulations. Our current understanding based on scientific evidence is there is no verifiable health risk from GM food. So I don’t think there will be much challenge in terms of it getting approved by FSSAI once it is approved for cultivation in India or abroad. But they have to follow a process because our act requires it. As for labelling, FSSAI wants to make it mandatory, but that depends on whether the government agrees. That also has to go through a consultation process and based on the feedback a final view will be taken.
At what level of GM material will labelling be triggered?
In our labelling regulations, it was 5%, but we have received many representations. We may review it. We will send it to the government within a week or two. (According to a FSSAI press release, Japan, Canada, Thailand and Indonesia allow GMO content up to 5 per cent without labelling. The European Union’s limit is 0.9 per cent. Lower the threshold, higher is the cost demonstrating or verifying compliance – Vivian).
What do you think of the study by the Centre for Science and Environment? Are you convinced about the methodology they have adopted?
CSE’s study is useful. At least some data is available. There are some concerns about the methodology, but something is better than nothing.