Illegal GM in our food

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In a first study of its kind for India, New Delhi-based research and advocacy body Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has exposed large-scale illegal presence and sale of genetically modified (GM) processed foods in the country. Without the approval of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), production, sale and import of these foods is banned in the country.

CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory (PML), which conducted this study, tested 65 food products available in Indian markets – 32 per cent of these were found to be GM-positive. These food products were purchased randomly from retail outlets in Delhi-NCR, Punjab and Gujarat. Both imported (35) and domestically produced (30) samples were tested – imported samples fared worse: 80 per cent of the products which were found to be GM-positive, were imported.

The products which were found to be GM-positive include infant food, edible oil and packaged food snacks. Most of these are imported from the US, Canada, the Netherlands, Thailand, and the UAE. These products were produced from or contain soya, cotton seed, corn or rapeseed (canola), which are known GM crops of the world.

Releasing the results of the study here today, CSE director general Sunita Narain said, “Our government says it has not allowed the import of GM food products. Then how is this happening? We have found that laws are not the problem – the regulatory agencies are.”

Adding to this, Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general, CSE, said, “We had been hearing about the presence of illegal GM food in India, and decided to do a reality check by testing processed foods. We were shocked to know the scale in which GM foods have penetrated the Indian market. The regulatory authorities are to blame here – the FSSAI has not allowed any GM food on paper, but has failed to curb its illegal sales.”

What is GM? Why should we worry?
“GM – genetically modified – products, especially food, raise a crucial question of safety: a question of how safe are they. The jury is still out on this,” says Narain. This is because GM food involves taking genes (DNA) from different organisms and inserting them in food crops. There is a concern that this ‘foreign’ DNA can lead to risks such as toxicity, allergic reactions, and nutritional and unintended impacts.

Most countries in the world, including India, have decided to take a ‘precautionary’ approach to GM food. They have set stringent regulations for approval and labelling. The EU, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and South Koreahave made it mandatory to label GM food so that consumers have a choice about what they are eating.

What did the CSE study find?
GM food contains foreign promoter and terminator genes. More than 90 per cent of GM crops in the market contain promoter genes like 35S promoter of cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) and FMV promoter of figwort mosaic virus, and NOS terminator of Agrobacterium tumefaciens. Using quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction (qPCR), CSE’s lab screened the food products to ascertain if they had a combination 35S promoter, NOS terminator and FMV promoter.

What does CSE recommend?
The FSSAI must identify all GM products being sold in the market and prosecute companies and traders responsible.
It must set up a safety assessment system for approval of both domestic and imported GM foods.
The limit for GM labelling exemption should be set at 1 per cent GM DNA and not on the basis of weight of ingredients. Only unintentional contamination should be exempted.
The FSSAI should adopt qualitative screening (such as through quantitative polymerase chain reaction – qPCR) as an enforcement tool and the onus of proving unintentional presence should be on the food manufacturer. It must set up laboratories to screen GM foods for effective monitoring.
A symbol-based label such as ‘GM’ should be displayed on the front of packs which carry GM food — just like the green “tick” along with the words “Jaivik Bharat” proposed for organic food.

Says Narain: “In 2008 (updated in 2012), the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had issued guidelines for determining safety of such food — it cautioned that ‘there is a possibility of introducing unintended changes, along with intended changes, which may in turn have an impact on the nutritional status or health of the consumer.’ Keeping this in mind, India should adopt a health-based precautionary principle approach to GM food regulation and labelling.”

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