Strengthen the regulation of genetically modified foods; “Ban GM foods” – unreasonable demand
Anti-GMO campaigners’ demand that the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) drop its draft Food Safety and Standards (Genetically Modified or Modified Foods) Regulations, 2021 and summarily ban GM foods/ingredients , is certainly ill-founded and unscientific. Campaigners argue that the decision to allow food products on the market with a “contains GMO” label, if any of a product’s individual ingredients constituting 1% or more of the product is of GM origin, is a tacit approval of imports. of GM foods. But the fact is that the Indian consumer is already exposed to genetically modified food products, directly and indirectly. The Center for Science and the Environment reported in 2018 that 32% of 65 commercially available food products it tested contained GMOs; almost 80% of these products were imported. In addition, animal feed made from GM crops and imported animal and plant products that likely have GM origins/exposures are currently being traded in India, although they most likely comply with the provisions of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. In this context, the labeling of foods of GM origin benefits the consumer, helping them to choose between a GM product and a non-GM alternative. That said, the food standards and safety regulator – and the government – need to take a nuanced view of objections. India has the laboratory capacity to detect as little as 0.01% GM content. Thus, the 1% threshold is indeed too high; standards must not only enable food safety, but also choice for the informed consumer – very much in the spirit of the strict organic certification standards, or even the recent Delhi High Court directive that companies must make explicit the vegetarian/animal origin of each ingredient in a dish/food product. Indeed, the FSSAI should mandate explicit labeling of GM content, with packaging indicating the exact degree to which the product contains each individual GM ingredient.
The provision of the draft regulations that FSSAI approval of a specific food/ingredient of genetically modified origin holding a unique identification from the Biosafety Clearinghouse (established under the Cartagena Protocol) , the OECD, etc., will have to be universally rethought. First, the FSSAI must clearly list the jurisdictions/authorities whose approval will be acceptable for the purposes of this provision; ‘etc’ should not allow approvals by authorities that may not have acceptable testing rigor – indeed, even between developed jurisdictions there is virtually no uniformity of such rigor. Second, in the context of consumables such as gut biome enhancers, microbial dietary supplements, which may contain multiple living modified organisms, local studies are needed to determine that the interaction of these organisms is without danger. Draft FSSAI Regulation 4(12) states that GMO ingredients may not be used in any infant food. It is true that performing safety tests on infants is a near impossibility. But, if the FSSAI has reservations about the GMO content of infant consumables, shouldn’t this be valid at least during the first years of development?
Genetic modification playing a larger role in food technology is inevitable in the long term and in many cases may even be desirable. For a country like India that aims to improve the nutrition levels of its vulnerable population, a product like golden rice – rice fortified with vitamin A – is a godsend; India has high levels of vision loss linked to Vitamin A deficiency. Without a scientific attitude towards GM foods, we will not be able to benefit from the development of GM Golden Rice. At the same time, the regulatory landscape should inspire confidence in the masses through scientific rigor. For this, the FSSAI must review its draft regulations and fill in the gaps.
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