Taste the modified BUFFET
CSE's Pollution Monitoring Laboratory purchased 64 processed food products from retail stores in Delhi-NCR, Punjab and Gujarat and 1 sample of crude cottonseed oil. These
products were tested for the presence of genetically modified (GM) ingredients using the advanced technology qPCR (quantitative polymerase chain reaction). The results showed that 32 per cent of the products tested contained GM ingredients
To the dismay of cse researchers, some 17 per cent of the food samples manufactured domestically tested positive for GM. These were samples of refined cottonseed oil, or kapasia tel, sold under the brand names of Tirupati, Ankur, Ginni and Vimal. The sample of crude cottonseed oil also tested GM-positive. This finding clearly indicates that Bt cotton, which is the only GM crop allowed for commercial cultivation in the country since 2002, and now occupies 94 per cent of the country’s cotton farms, has found its way into our food system.
These findings are alarming because some of the products found GM-positive are consumed on a daily basis. Consider cottonseed oil for instance. It is a cheap cooking medium—usually 30-40 per cent cheaper than the other vegetable oils like mustard oil and soyabean oil—and is used voraciously by the packaged food industry for making
namkeen snacks like bhujia. It is also a permitted ingredient for vanaspati, which is referred to as poor man’s ghee and is used by the bakery industry for providing stability to the products and improving their shelf life.
Then there are those products that are becoming popular among the urban healthconscious. Maya Mishra, a teacher in south Delhi, has recently switched to canola oil and vouches for its goodness. She says the oil is a healthy choice for her husband and son, both suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. While the oil is marketed with claims such as “the ability to reduce the risk of heart diseases”, cse has found four of the seven canola brands GM-positive (see ‘Taste the modified buffet’, p34).
LABELS DO LIE
Consumers like Mishra and Nikki’s mother have no way of knowing the truth because labels do not always tell the whole story; some products even take the liberty of making false claims. cse findings show most samples—74 per cent of the imported products and 96 per cent of the domestic ones—did not mention anything about GM on their labels. When tested, a quarter of them—24 per cent—were found using GM ingredients. Three of the five brands whose labels suggested no use of genetically modified organisms (gmos) were also found GM-positive. These were Candrop canola oil from Canada, mori-nu’s Silken tofu from the US and PromPlus sweet whole kernel corn from Thailand. While Candrop claims that the product is “gmo free” and mori-nu tofu’s claim reads “Non-gmo Project Verified”, the label on PromPlus kernel corn declares “Non-gmo”.
These products are imported by industry behemoths like Jindal Retails (India) Pvt Ltd, Abbott Healthcare Pvt Ltd, Dalmia Continental Pvt Ltd and Jivo Wellness Pvt Ltd, and lesser-known Bajoria Food Pvt Ltd, Newage Gourmet Foods in Delhi, Century Edible Cooking Oils Pvt Ltd, Olive Tree Trading Pvt Ltd and Guru Kirpa Impex, Delhi. Down To Earth (dte) contacted some of the industry representatives to check if they had the approval to import GM food.
While the All Indian Cottonseed Crushers’ Association (aicca) refused to comment, Jivo Wellness Pvt Ltd, which claims to be the largest seller of canola oil in India, evaded dte’s queries and the Olive Tree Trading Pvt Ltd did not respond till the magazine went to press.
cse findings also highlight the vacuum in governing GM foods in India. So far, the government has been cautious in its approach while giving approval to the commercial cultivation of GM crops. This has been mainly made possible due to constant opposition from the civil society—approvals for cultivation of Bt brinjal and GM mustard were put on hold despite being recommended by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (geac), set up in 1990 under the Union environment ministry to approve GM crops for cultivation as well as manufacture, import and selling of processed foods made from GM ingredients. But cracks in the approval process for processed and packaged food products seem to have paved the way for the intrusion of
gmos into the country. Under Section 3 of the Food Safety and Standards (fss) Act, 2006, “food” means any substance, whether processed, partially processed or unprocessed, which is intended for human consumption and includes… genetically modified or engineered food or food containing such ingredients…” This shows fssai is the sole authority responsible for regulating GM food products in the country. But since it was set up in 2006 under the Union health ministry, the authority has been evading responsibility, at least
that’s what it seems (see ‘Cracks in the system’, p42). While fssai kept looking the other way,
geac, between 2007 and 2015, gave approval to three GM food products—Doritos corn chips, canola oil and soya bean oil. fssai also does not seem to have given much thought while setting standards or allowing import of food products.
In 2011, fssai set parameters for cottonseed oil, cottonseed flour and allowed its use in vanaspati. But it did not put in place a system to ensure that the oil is not sourced from GM cotton. In June 2017 and then in December that year, it approved import of 95 specialty food for inborn errors of metabolism and hypoallergenic conditions, without taking into account the possibility of such products being made from GM ingredients. Similac Alimentum, which was found GM-positive by cse, was given approval in June 2017.
In the meanwhile, in 2013 the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution amended the Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules, 2011 to mandate labelling of packages containing genetically modified foods with the term “GM”. “The guideline was for packaging only and is applicable to both domestically produced foods and imported ones. It was inserted to prevent the consumption of GM food, which is harmful to human health,” says B N Dixit, director, weights and measure division (legal metrology department) in the ministry.
The rules are inconsistent with the fss Act, which has not allowed GM foods in the country. In fact, a false perception has been created that GM foods are allowed.
Strangely, the Foreign Trade (Development and Regulation) Act, 1992 when read with the Import Policy of 2017 also provides for a penal action against the importer in case it is found that a food product containing GM ingredients did not declare so at the time of the import. So, has the Union commerce ministry taken note of the 12 imported food products that did not mention GM on their label but were found GM-positive by cse?
WHY WE SHOULD WORRY
gmos are those plants, animals or microorganisms, in which the genetic material (deoxyribonucleic acid or dna) is altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or through natural recombination. They are produced using genetic engineering technology, also known as recombinant dna technology, in which scientists transfer select genes from one organism into another of the same species or a non-related species so that the recipient acquires a desired trait.
So far, the major use of the technology has been to make crops resistant to pest attacks, improve their tolerance to herbicides and to increase their nutritional content. For instance, scientists have developed Bt variants of cotton, corn and soyabean by inserting the gene of a bacteria, Bacillus
thuringiensis (Bt), into the plants’ original genetic material. BT gene expresses codes for Bt toxin protein, which when ingested by bollworm insects attacks their gut cells and kills them. Similarly, scientists have developed herbicide-tolerant (Ht) corn, soyabean, cotton and rapeseed by modifying the gene that produces the enzyme epsps (5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase) in plants. The enzyme produced by the modified gene does not get degraded by herbicides like glyphosate and glufosinate, and therefore does not harm the plant.
A study published in the August 2018 issue of International Immunopharmacology says the Bt protein can lead to immune reaction and trigger food allergy and intestinal inflammation in mice. And this is one of the several studies that indicate a possible problem. In the absence of long-term studies to ascertain specific health implications of GM food, the Codex Alimentarius, a body established by the World Health Organization (who) and the Food and Agriculture Organization, to regulate global trade in food, has come out with guidelines relating to risk assessment of GM foods.
The guidelines show GM foods can act as a toxin or induce allergic reactions due to cross-reaction with other allergens or from new unknown GM proteins. A crop’s nutritional content may get altered during the insertion of GM dna into its genome. A more severe outcome can be unintended escape of the inserted gene into body cells or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. If the inserted gene is resistant to a class of antibiotics, it can push humanity to the pre-antibiotic era where a mild flu would result in death.
Even H P S Sachdev, a paediatrician and nutritionist in Delhi who has written in favour of GM golden rice as a solution to malnutrition in World Development in 2008, says, “Until and unless GM crops have been tested on adults and their safety has been proven beyond doubt, infants must be kept away from those.”
The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety suggests countries follow the precautionary principle to limit the use and release of gmos in situations of scientific uncertainty with regard to potentially adverse ecological and health effects. “Since various gmos have different genes which are inserted in multiple ways, countries must evaluate the safety of GM foods taking into account different populations and geographies,” suggests who.
Data with the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (isaaa), a non-profit promoting the use of biotechnology in crops, shows at least 30 GM crops have so far been developed worldwide. Some 24 countries have given approvals for commercial cultivation of GM