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FSSAI GM regulation puts health in a soup

The Authority has a new scheme to mix genetically modified organisms in our foods even though the EU doesn’t allow GM food on its plate. — Indra Shekhar Singh


Careful of what you eat in 2022 as the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has a new scheme to mix genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our foods. The white and black bureaucratic-looking draft notification on GM food regulation has locked India’s food fate with Big Ag. It’s only a matter of time before a tsunami of GM food products floods the Indian market as the gates of our fortress have been opened from the inside.

But first, what are GM foods? These are foods that are derived from genetically modified crops. Companies like Monsanto/Bayer have developed patented crops varieties which have genes from two different life forms. For example India’s only GM crop, Bt Cotton, uses a toxin producing gene from a ground bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, and combines it with a cotton plant. Some of the other popular GMOs are soybean, corn, sugar beets and canola. While some of these crops are owned by European companies, EU doesn’t allow GM food on its plate. GM foods are also used for animal feed and biofuels. Apart from the EU, independent scientists have raised serious bio-medical concerns, linking the consumption of GM foods leading to a plethora of health defects.

So what does the notification say? Firstly, it allows for “1 per cent and below GM content foods” to go unlabelled. But why have this 1 per cent at all? Can’t India have truthful labels, where the consumers know what they eat? Perhaps aware of the risks of GM food, FSSAI regulators have clearly stated that GMOs are “not permitted in infant foods”. So why the obfuscation on labelling standards and then, in the same breath, the stance on infant foods? Is there something FSSAI knows and not telling Indians?

Let’s take a second and look at our past. In the late 90s, India was flooded with cheap GM soybean oil imports that not only killed small mustard farmers but also destroyed the local oilseed markets. But now, also consider, GMOs are already trickling into our thalis with the rampant blending of Bt cottonseed oil in our foods. Both FSSAI and GEAC were aware about it for years; in fact, Dr Vandana Shiva and I sent RTIs to both organisations and found out, FSSAI and GEAC both treated GMO cottonseed and natural cottonseed to be the same. This was an unscientific position, conveniently forgetting the genetic modifications on Monsanto/Bayer’s Bt cottonseed. On further investigation, I found that biosafety documents submitted to GEAC came from Monsanto labs. No independent biosafety data was found at GEAC for Monsanto/Bayer’s Bt Cotton.

Currently, those pages are dead links on GEAC’s website. In the draft notification too, FSSAI adhered to similar biosafety standards and, in some cases, allowed for the documents to be submitted by the applicant and not necessarily the regulatory authority-approved dossiers.

Now the next major confusion occurs when the notification calls for “(11) Once GMOs or Genetically Engineered Organisms or Living Modified Organisms having unique identification code provided by Biosafety Clearing House, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development etc, is approved by FSSAI, approval for the same will not be required for any other Food Business Operator. Approval will also not be required if it is used as an ingredient in any product.”

On plain reading, this point appears innocuous. But the devil is always in the details. Given that EU doesn’t allow for GM food, half of the influential countries are out. What does FSSAI mean as it wrote this point? Is it perhaps referring to the corporate food hegemony on GM standards? The US, along with many others in the Americas, is deeply entrenched in GM crops cultivation and freely allows for GM foods, labelled or unlabelled, to enter markets.

It is no surprise that US citizens along with their Latin American counterparts suffer from food-style related diseases. French scientist Eric Seralini, using peer review scientific journals, demonstrated how GM foods are harmful not only to cows but their toxicity including the pesticide/herbicide used to grow third-generations GMOs like RRF Cotton and hamper human health as well.

Monsanto/Bayer has already lost billions of dollars to victims of Round-Up poisoning. Round-Up is a patented herbicide used to grow GM crops, and is known carcinogenic.

The parliamentary standing committee on GM crops, chaired by Renuka Chowdhary, has already pulled up FSSAI on GM food and a court order of August 2017 empowers petitioners to approach the court again in case the FSSAI rules are unsatisfactory.

GM or not GM? It is obvious that the FSSAI notification is doing someone else’s bidding — corporates or Uncle Sam? Who knows? But as a concerned citizen, I urge them to reconsider. Instead of deregulating GM foods, FSSAI needs to first do house cleaning and take cognisance of the illegal GM foods that are being fed to Indians. We must aspire to have the most progressive GM laws on a par with EU, and not below them. For, if GM food is not safe for European children to eat, then Indian children ought not have it. 

(The author writes on agriculture and environment, and is a former Director — Policy & Outreach, National Seed Association of India. The views expressed are personal.)

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