Why the credibility of FSSAI is key to promoting biotech in India

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New Delhi | Updated: August 15, 2018 1:35 AM

The food standard regulator has so far not assessed the safety of even one GM food and neither does it have a set procedure to assess safety.

Why the credibility of FSSAI is key to promoting biotech in India

Recently, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) released a laboratory study that found that one-third of the processed food samples it tested had genetically modified organism (GMO) genes. GM-positive products included infant food, edible oil and packaged food snacks. About 80% of the GM-positive products were imported from the US, Canada, the Netherlands, Thailand etc.

The law in India strictly prohibits the import, export, manufacture, use or sale of GM organisms/products without approval of regulatory agencies like the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). None of the products found GM-positive in the CSE study were approved by the regulators and were, hence, illegally sold. In addition, most of the products failed to mention use of GM ingredients anywhere on their labels, which is required by the Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules 2011 of the ministry of consumer affairs. All in all, the companies selling these GM products were flouting the laws of the country. CSE’s simple recommendation is that the law of the land be implemented. The existing law explicitly states that GM products can be sold in the market, but only after an approval process that includes scientific assessment of their safety to the health and environment. The law also requires that packaged food made from GM crops clearly display ‘GM’ on the package as consumers have the ‘right to know’ what they are eating.

The simple demand to implement the law led to a fierce debate on the pros and cons of GM food. While the anti-GM group demanded action against companies, the pro-GM group issued a fascinating exposition to proclaim that the law itself is a problem. In all these, the FSSAI came across in a bad light. Let’s first look at the response of the pro-GM group. Swaminathan Aiyar published an opinion piece on August 1, 2018, in The Economic Times (bit.ly/2MgqSg3), where he blamed CSE for ‘unscientific falsehood’. He wrote that we should not bother about ‘sundry rules and laws’ flouted by companies as these GM regulations are an outcome of ‘unscientific scaremongering’. Mr. Aiyar went on to vouch for the safety of GM food by stating that Indians have been eating GM oil and Vanaspati for long without any evidence of ill effects. He further provided ‘hard proof’ by stating that millions of Indian tourists to the US eat GM food, but are unaffected.

In a similar vein, an editorial published on August 2, 2018, in the Business Standard (bit.ly/2MFSCXI) vouched for the safety of GM food by stating that the illegality happening in India is ‘the most reassuring evidence of safety of GM products’. It stated, ‘Many farmers grow Bt-cotton most carelessly without observing the recommended safety measures. The GM foods are also being consumed, even if unknowingly, as revealed by the CSE report. Yet, hardly any deleterious fallout has been observed until now’. Both the aforementioned pieces implored the government to approve new GM crops. I am not going to comment on whether the government should approve or reject the demand for new GM crops; approval or rejection should be made on the basis of hard scientific data and open public discussion. What I am going to comment on is how the unscientific logic of the pro-GM lobby is harming the development of biotechnology.

There is now a scientific consensus that eating GM food today will not make people sick tomorrow; the health impacts of GM food can be chronic and, in many cases, uncertain. The only way to establish the safety of GM food is by conducting long-term health studies. Unfortunately, while India has allowed cultivation of GM cotton and there is a clamour to allow more crops based on data submitted by companies, no long-term health study has been commissioned so far. My advice to the pro-GM lobby is that, instead of putting out arguments like ‘Indian tourists not getting affected’ or ‘farmers are growing GM crops carelessly’, they should seriously ask the government to do some health studies so that consumers can gain confidence. Company-sponsored data is not going to help the matter as companies such as Monsanto have been found to ghostwrite their own safety reviews. Recently, Monsanto was fined $289 million in California because its herbicide, glyphosate, was indicted for causing cancer. The jury found that Monsanto knew about the dangers of this weedkiller but failed to warn consumers.

Likewise, every country in the world, including the United States—the Mecca of GM food—has laws to assess the safety of GM crops and foods. By pooh-poohing GM regulations, the pro-GM lobby is actually creating deep doubts in the minds of people. If GM food is safe, companies should be encouraged to follow the law and put all information in the public domain. So, my advice is that, instead of questioning the law, GM supporters should advocate that the law is implemented in an impartial manner. Unfortunately, the currently GM debate has put a big question mark on the impartiality of FSSAI.

In an interview published on August 9, 2018, in this newspaper (bit.ly/2OowPV2), FSSAI CEO, Pawan Kumar Agarwal, stated, “There is a regulatory vacuum as far as GM food is concerned”. He went on to add that GM food would be properly regulated in the country once FSSAI came out with the new law. With this answer, he shrugged off the responsibility of the FSSAI to take action against companies for the illegality. He further stated, “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”.

These views of Mr. Agarwal have hurt the credibility of FSSAI.

It is true that the FSSAI has so far not come out with regulations of GM food. But it is equally true that this doesn’t stop it from taking action against companies. The Union health minister, JP Nadda, made this clear in his answer in the Lok Sabha in February, 2018. He stated, ‘No standards for GM foods have been laid down/notified by the FSSAI. However, even in the absence of specific standards for GM foods, as per Section 22 of Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, GM foods are not allowed to be manufactured, imported or sold in the country”. So, the ‘regulatory vacuum’ that Mr. Agarwal stated can’t be an excuse for the FSSAI not to take action against illegality. Similarly, there is no basis for Mr. Agarwal to state that, “there is no verifiable health impact of GM food vis-à-vis conventional food on humans”. The FSSAI has so far not assessed the safety of even one GM food. In fact, it does not even have a set procedure to assess safety. By making an unsubstantiated claim, Mr. Agarwal has put doubts in the minds of people about the impartiality of FSSAI vis-à-vis GM food.

The bottom line is that if the regulators are suspect, we will never be able to use modern biotechnology for the benefit of all. Our regulators don’t have to be haters or lovers of GM food—they are supposed to use the best scientific knowledge and implement the law. This is the least that the citizenry expects.

The writer is a Deputy director general, CSE.

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