Food Safety Regulator Thrusting Unsafe Foods on Unaware & Unwilling Citizens
Kavitha Kuruganti 28 January 2022
The Food Safety Authority is back in the middle of a controversy related to its primary job—of ensuring safe and wholesome foods (for all citizens). In the name of draft regulations related to GM foods, it is apparently proposing to create such a lax regulatory regime that any genetically modified (GM) food approved in other countries is likely to be approved in India. This has predictably led to intensified campaigns by aware citizens who have managed to get an extension of the public feedback deadline to 5th February from the earlier 15 January 2022 deadline. 
 
Ironically, this is happening when none other than the prime minister of India has emphasised taking agriculture out of the chemistry lab. One would presume that he is talking about taking it out of the biochemistry and molecular biology labs too, where the unnatural is being evolved in irresponsible and irreversible experimentation. 
 
Genetically modified or GM foods have been documented in scientific studies to cause various adverse health effects potentially. They can affect immunity, reproductive health, vital organs and their functioning, growth and development of an organism and so on. Individual toxic genes as well as the GM process itself, along with deadly chemicals used with GM crops, seem to be responsible for such impacts. In Europe and elsewhere, aware consumers have ensured that such GM foods have no demand and, thereby, markets. 
 
The irony of the situation here in India, where the food safety regulator proposes easy ways of foisting unsafe foods like GM foods on unaware and unwilling citizens, goes back to creating the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 itself. 
 
Here, the debate in May and July of 2006 in the Parliamentary proceedings on the Bill that was tabled in August 2005 by the ministry of food processing industries is revealing. In February 2006, the standing committee on agriculture, to whom the Bill was referred to, tabled its report in the Parliament. This Committee recommended that a proposed food authority be called 'Food Safety Authority' and that the ministry of health administer the statute. Parliamentarians, who participated in the debate in both Houses, were clearly concerned about GM foods and corporatisation of our food systems, with names of companies like Pepsi, Nestlé and Monsanto explicitly taken. 
 
The discussions expressed concerns about food that the poor in the country consumes. There was also preference expressed for organic foods and the fact that the government should step forward to provide benefits to those producing organic foods. However, the Bill that was passed and enacted into law, under Section 22 clubbed such things as GM foods and organic foods into one provision!
 
In the implementation of the law, the Food Authority, despite being in existence for many years now, was over-enthusiastic about regulating organic foods, which essentially is in line with the very mandate of the Authority (safe food), but did not bother about regulating (illegal) GM foods in the country, despite complaints by civil society organisations. 
 
Years after committing in the Supreme Court about putting into place its regulations soon, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) finally came up with draft regulations in November 2021 and sought public feedback. 
 
In the draft regulations, FSSAI is proposing to regulate two kinds of GM foods, but for neither category does it spell out how safety assessment will be done. In the forms annexed to the proposed regulations, one can realise that FSSAI will make approvals in other countries as the basis for approvals here. 
 
While the draft speaks about the 'Authority' processing applications, the ‘Authority’ by law does not have any safety experts! It has ministerial representatives along with industry, retail, farmer and consumer representatives. 
 
While there is a passing mention of how approvals or rejections will be based on biosafety assessment, there is nothing to outline how such biosafety assessment will take place, what are the long term and multi-generational, comprehensive testing regime that will be adopted. 
 
There is no mention of public participation or independent functioning devoid of conflict of interest. In fact, it was civil society groups that called out the wrongdoing of FSSAI in its constitution of a scientific panel on GMOs (genetically modified organisms). To this day, this panel does not reflect the safety expertise needed in such a panel, nor is it fully devoid of conflict of interest. 
 
Moreover, nothing is stated about transparent functioning and biosafety dossiers in the public domain. There is no squeak about proactive surveillance to watch out for illegal GM food sales or for effects after approvals. 
 
Even though labs can detect GM adventitious presence at 0.01% limit of detection (LOD), FSSAI is proposing labelling with a threshold of 1% for individual GM ingredients, denying consumers their right to know and right to informed choices. 
 
In fact, these draft 'regulations' are not worth the name at all, even as these regulations also seek to weaken the meagre and lackadaisical law further that genetic engineering appraisal committee (GEAC) does, under the Environment Protection Act (EPA), 1986.
 
Importantly, there is nothing in these draft regulations about state governments and their policies concerning GM foods, even though public health is a state subject as per the Constitution of India. Nearly all states in India are opposed to GM food crops. How will FSSAI keep out GM foods in particular states that do not want such foods?
 
These draft regulations reveal the real gameplan of the agri-business and food industry. When citizen resistance and state government opposition ensured that GM food crops could not be approved for cultivation in the country, the GM foods route is now being explored to gain acceptance, after which GM seeds will also be sought to be brought in. 
 
FSSAI is aiding the industry by proposing the current kind of regulations. It is time that state governments and citizens woke up to the danger being posed by FSSAI, and ensure that the food safety regulator upholds their wish to remain GM-free. 
 
Online petitions have been initiated for this purpose and one such petition is here. More detailed feedback sent to the regulator by many organisations and experts is available here.
 
FSSAI has to notify regulations that will essentially catch out unpermitted GM foods and take penal action on them, and not regulations that will ensure easier entry of GM foods. 
 
The provision related to infant foods reveals that FSSAI can have a prohibitory approach if it chooses to. This was adopted in a precautionary manner and rightly so. 
 
FSSAI has to ensure that a precautionary approach is followed for all GM foods and all food consumers and not just infants.
   
(Kavitha Kuruganti is with the Coalition for a GM-Free India and works on issues related to farmers’ rights, sustainable farm livelihoods and food safety) 
 
Comments
saharaaj
8 months ago
This is contrary to Govt assertion ... what is good for other country or accepted in foreign country may not be good for India .. may be due to genetic diversity
method man
Replied to saharaaj comment 8 months ago
sorry, not sure what you mean. how would genetic diversity affect health outcomes from GM in india? are you talking about genetic diversity among the crops? or variations in uman genetics?

while the first is a legitimate concern, the second is not really a problem, to be honest. we have as much chance of having an unexpected reaction to a plant that evolved by natural means, as to a GM food.
method man
8 months ago
er. this seems to be an ideological position. I wonder if the regulation is lax in its enforcement of other standards as well? or is this limited to the GM issue?

If so, I'm not sure whether Ms. Kuruganti would see anything short of a full ban to be good and proper regulation. In which case, this article does not inform.

there is no mechanism by which GM foods would affect "immunity, reproductive health, vital organs and their functioning, growth and development of an organism and so on" in a way that's different from how genetically un-modified foods would. to me, the assumption would be that without some evidence of a molecular mechanism, such results are purely statistical - for example, it's possible that mice bred on GM brinjals as part of their diet had fewer pups per reproductive cycle.

this does not translate to a harm until we have some new chemical/alkaloid being produced by the brinjal that the unmodified one does not. I am not a food scientist, but I'm unaware of any results that show such results.

the primary argument against GM ought to be economic - if corporates can control seed supplies, they can hold our farmers to ransom. this is something that sensible regulation can prevent. Bringing dubious science into these discussions helps no one, and allows the government to frame legislation that will actually harm the people whom Ms. Kuruganti claims to advocate for.
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