Aye, says India to GM food

Sunday 30 April 2006

Draft rules for GM food are nothing short of treachery by the Union government

-- the draft rules for labelling of genetically modified (gm) foods, formulated by the Union ministry of health and family welfare, has quietly paved the way for gm food's entry in India. The ministry claims this 'reform' is path breaking and will protect consumer rights. Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, it's a betrayal of the public by the ministry's bureaucrats and technocrats.

There was no public discussion. No debate in the Parliament. The public has suddenly been asked to react to a draft. Nobody asked us if we wanted a draft in the first place. If the ministry was half-way serious about consumer rights, it would have asked the question: Does India want gm food? Now, if these rules are denounced, the government will conveniently label it reactionism. All agribusiness with interest in corn and soy are polishing their talons at the prospect of a large market opening up -- in a democratic country, without any public debate.

gm foods are highly controversial across the world. Mandatory labelling lets the government wash off its hands as a regulator and pass the risk to consumers -- in the name of consumers' choice. But let's assume that fears of adverse health effects of gm foods are a bogey raised by environmentalists. Does the government have the scientific infrastructure to test foods for gm content? The answer is a clear -- and resounding -- no. The draft rules don't mention the government's ability to draw samples of gm food and check them for what the producer claims. There is not one lab in India that can detect gm traces of one per cent. The government expects the public to trust that such labs will be constructed soon. Trust the same government that doesn't offer people a choice. That, too, in the name of upholding consumers' rights.

Other ministries are not to be left behind. Union minister of commerce, Kamal Nath, has now inducted mandatory labelling norm for all imported gm food in the foreign trade policy, as well as a punitive clause for non-labelling -- a non-existing fig leaf. Punitive action requires a specialised wing to regulate gm food. But hold on. Even the eu taxpayers refused paying extra for gm policing. As if that wasn't enough, India is getting into mandatory labelling right after the eu lost a case in the World Trade Organization on the same issue to the us. Who is the minister trying to fool here?

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