GM food draft regulations favour interests of businesses, not citizens: GM-Free coalition writes to FSSAI

Coalition called for setting up of GM Foods and Feed Safety Appraisal Committee consisting of independent biosafety experts

By Shagun
Published: Wednesday 18 January 2023
Photo: iStock

This story has been updated

Coalition for a GM-Free India, a platform of organisations and individuals representing farmers, consumers, experts and activists, has expressed disappointment and concern over the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India’s (FSSAI) draft regulations on genetically modified (GM) food. They said the regulations were giving short shrift to citizens’ interests in favour of business interests. 

In a letter written to the chief executive officer of FSSAI January 18, the coalition has pointed out that not a single input of their earlier responses has been included. But “numerous industry inputs have made it to FSSAI’s updated draft regulations, whether it be on removing processed food, excluding processing aid or excluding a couple of categories of genome editing from the scope”, they added.

This is in addition to the fact that industry representatives had access to and could comment on the draft regulations beforehand, the members of the platform wrote. 

Read more: DTE Coverage: Does India really need GM mustard

Earlier, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch had also voiced their concerns over the regulations, saying that this could pave the way for easier entry of transgenic foods into the country. 

In the draft regulations published November 18, FSSAI had proposed mandatory prior approval from the regulator to manufacture, sell and import food or ingredients produced from genetically modified organisms (GMO). 

Besides, all GMO food products, containing 1 per cent or more of the GM ingredient considered individually, must be labelled with the words 'contains genetically modified organisms', the authority mandated. 

To this, the letter stated that the labelling requirement should kick in by keeping the threshold at 0.01 per cent “when the detection mechanism is able to provide this at 0.01 per cent threshold”. 

India’s unique consumption conditions and existing health / under- nourishment conditions should govern the fact that labelling is not an easy answer to the issue of consumer’s right to know and make informed choices, a section of experts maintained.

Coalition for a GM-Free India highlighted:

Solutions like labelling do not readily lend themselves to Indian conditions of food consumption, where most of our food is not packed or labelled and majority of the people do not even have the awareness to read and understand labels.

FSSAI’s affidavit in the Supreme Court of India of May 2017 also acknowledges the issues with labelling, it wrote in the letter. 

FSSAI had extended the deadline of public consultation on draft regulations on GM food to January 20, 2023 from the previous deadline of January 15.

Pointing out loopholes in the draft regulations, the coalition said that there was no provision for a long-term comprehensive and independent testing regime. Besides, it does not have provisions of independent data analysis and public scrutiny. 

It also urged the food safety regulator to conduct a need and alternatives assessment. The final approval for GMO foods should be based on assessment of needs and alternatives of safer ingredients / foods that can serve the same purpose as the GM ingredient / food under consideration, it added.

Further, the draft regulations have ignored GM feed, even though GM feed also affects the safety of the human food chain. “FSSAI in the past has not hesitated to issue regulations with regard to some aspects of animal feed, and GM feed should be part of the current regulations,” the letter said. 

Another significant point highlighted in the letter was the time period for which the approval should be granted. Any approval should be for a specified time period of one year initially and not more than three years, “as regulatory science is constantly co-evolving and all applications need to be reviewed automatically in the light of evolution of scientific methods and evidence”.

The draft regulations only refer to the food authority deciding on applications, which is not possible as neither it meets often enough nor does it have biosafety experts, the coalition also pointed out.

“The Authority also does not have Environment Ministry representatives, and coordination with the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee will be difficult in this situation,” it wrote in the letter. 

The Authority, according to the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, is also not mandated to give routine regulatory approval, they underlined. “The regulations have to specify which body in FSSAI would be taking decisions on applications received.”

The letter instead called for setting up of a GM Foods and Feed Safety Appraisal Committee consisting of independent biosafety experts. 

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