Taste the mod­i­fied BUF­FET

Down to Earth - - COVER STORY -

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.

UN­REG­U­LATED REG­U­LA­TIONS

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

VIKASH CHOUD­HARY / CSE

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