Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE - @suni­ta­nar

THE MIN­I­MUM we ex­pect from the gov­ern­ment is to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween right and wrong. But when it comes to reg­u­lat­ing our food its like ask­ing for too much. Our lat­est in­ves­ti­ga­tion vouches for this. The Cen­tre for Sci­ence and En­vi­ron­ment (cse)’s pol­lu­tion mon­i­tor­ing lab­o­ra­tory tested 65 sam­ples of pro­cessed food for presence of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied (GM) in­gre­di­ents.

The re­sults are both bad and some­what good. Of the food sam­ples tested, some 32 per cent were pos­i­tive for GM mark­ers. That’s bad. What’s even worse is that we found GM in in­fant food, which is sold by US pharma firm, Ab­bott Lab­o­ra­to­ries, for tod­dlers with ail­ments; in one case it was for lac­tose in­tol­er­ant in­fants and the other hypoallergenic— for min­imis­ing pos­si­bil­ity of al­ler­gic reaction. In both cases there was no warn­ing la­bel on GM in­gre­di­ents. One of the health con­cerns of GM food is that it could lead to al­ler­gic re­ac­tions. In 2008 (up­dated in 2012), the In­dian Coun­cil of Med­i­cal Re­search is­sued guide­lines for de­ter­min­ing safety of such food, as 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”.

This is why Aus­tralia, Brazil, Euro­pean Union and others reg­u­late GM in food. Peo­ple are con­cerned about the pos­si­ble tox­i­c­ity of eat­ing this food. They want to err on the side of cau­tion. Gov­ern­ments en­sure they have the right to choose.

The par­tial good news is that ma­jor­ity of the food that tested GM pos­i­tive was im­ported. In­dia is still more or less GM-free. The one food that did test pos­i­tive is cot­ton­seed ed­i­ble oil. This is be­cause Bt-cot­ton is the only GM crop that has been al­lowed for cul­ti­va­tion in In­dia. This should worry us. First, no per­mis­sion has ever been given for the use of GM cot­ton­seed oil for hu­man con­sump­tion. Sec­ond, cot­ton­seed oil is also mixed in other ed­i­ble oils, par­tic­u­larly in Vanas­pati.

Under whose watch is GM food be­ing im­ported? The law is clear on this. The En­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion Act strictly pro­hibits im­port, ex­port, trans­port, man­u­fac­ture, process, use or sale of any ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered or­gan­isms ex­cept with the approval of the Ge­netic En­gi­neer­ing Approval Com­mit­tee (geac) under the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment, Forests and Climate Change. The 2006 Food Safety and Stan­dards Act (fssa) re­it­er­ates this and puts the Food Safety and Stan­dards Au­thor­ity of In­dia (fssai) in charge of reg­u­lat­ing use. The Le­gal Metrol­ogy (Pack­aged Com­modi­ties) Rules 2011 man­date that GM must be de­clared on the food pack­age and the For­eign Trade (De­vel­op­ment and Reg­u­la­tion) Act 1992 says that GM food can­not be im­ported without the per­mis­sion of geac. The im­porter is li­able to be pros­e­cuted under the Act for vi­o­la­tion.

Laws are not the prob­lem, but the reg­u­la­tory agen­cies are. Till 2016, geac was in charge—the fssai said it did not have the ca­pac­ity to reg­u­late this food. Now the ball is back in fssai’s court. They will all tell you that no per­mis­sion has been given to im­port GM food. In fact, they will say, there is no GM food in In­dia. But that’s the hypocrisy of our reg­u­la­tors—make a law, but then don’t en­force it. On paper it ex­ists; we are told, don’t worry. But worry we must.

So, ev­ery­thing we found is il­le­gal with re­spect to GM in­gre­di­ents. The law is clear about this. Our reg­u­la­tors are clue­less. So, worry. Get an­gry. It’s your food. It’s about your health.

What next? In 2018, fssai has is­sued a draft no­ti­fi­ca­tion on la­belling, which in­cludes GM food. It says that any food that has to­tal GM in­gre­di­ents 5 per cent or more should be la­belled and that this GM in­gre­di­ent shall be the top three in­gre­di­ents in terms of per­cent­age in the prod­uct. But there is no way that gov­ern­ment can quan­tify the per­cent­age of GM in­gre­di­ents in the food—this next level of tests is pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive. We barely have the fa­cil­i­ties. So, it is a clean chit to com­pa­nies to “self-de­clare”. They can say what they want. And get away.

The same fssai has is­sued an­other no­ti­fi­ca­tion (not draft any­more) on or­ganic food. In this case, it says that it will have to be manda­to­rily “cer­ti­fied” that it does not con­tain residues of in­sec­ti­cides. So, what is good needs to be cer­ti­fied that it is safe. What is bad, gets a clean bill of health. Am I wrong in ask­ing: whose in­ter­ests are be­ing pro­tected? So, take charge of your food. Your health is your busi­ness.


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