The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is planning a regime of labelling genetically modified (GM) foods, which do not exist in India as of now.
The move comes after India’s apex regulator for GM foods, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), approved India’s first transgenic food crop GM Mustard for commercial cultivation last month. The environment ministry has to take a final call.
FSSAI, though responsible for testing food standards, is passing the buck on independent testing of the impact of GM foods on human health. Its officials said that the environment ministry should look at it.
“We had a meeting with FSSAI two weeks back and requested it to take over the approvals of processed GM foods. But they asked GEAC to continue appraising proposals for processed foods until they are ready to take over the entire regulation of GM foods and imported processed foods. Meanwhile, they will handle the labelling process,” said Amita Prasad, additional secretary of the Environment Ministry.
Till now only one GM crop — Bt Cotton — is grown in Indian fields. The only other food crop to receive all approvals was Bt Brinjal. However, the government blocked its introduction. There has been widespread political and public opposition to the technology.
As per Section 22 of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, FSSAI has the responsibility to regulate GM organisms and products once they are approved by GEAC. FSSAI even submitted a status report before the Supreme Court, which is hearing a case against commercial cultivation of GM Mustard, and stressed that no regulation is yet framed to regulate GM foods. DNA has reviewed a copy of the status report.
The development comes after GEAC flagged in April the absence of any regulatory mechanism to deal with the import of processed GM foods.
India is dependent on imports to meet its demand for edible oils, including mustard oil. But there has been opposition from some farmer groups that the GM technology will lead to industrialisation of food production and compromise food security.
While the Environment Ministry had excluded approvals of processed GM foods from its mandate through a 2007 notification, the Union Health Ministry requested it to continue regulating GM processed foods till FSSAI is able to look into the matter in a scientific manner.
As a result, the Environment Ministry began keeping the 2007 notification in abeyance at regular intervals, till it last expired on March 2016.
Speaking to DNA, FSSAI’s chief executive officer, Pawan Kumar Agrawal, said, “Regarding GM foods, we come into the picture when GEAC allows certain crops to be cultivated in India. After clearance, all GM foods would be subject to the same standards that apply to regular food.”
“The only requirement will be to see if it is above a certain threshold of certain GM protein found, then that has to be declared and that is what we are working on…the categories of food for which the labelling requirement will be made mandatory,” he said.
In its status report before the top court, FSSAI dwelt on the complexity of the labelling regime. “Any labelling regime… will have practical implications on trade as it will necessitate implementation of large-scale threshold testing regimes and traceability protocols with back up documentation, which would cause significant escalation of costs.”
Activists said that FSSAI should go beyond simply labelling GM foods. “We are talking about rigorous independent health safety assessment, and FSSAI should not get away from that role and also look at edible oils derived from GM crops,” said Kavita Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, a loose network of more than 400 organisations from 20 states working on farm issues.