by April McCarthy
Can we give a thumbs up to the ministry of consumer affairs in India? They have issued a gazette notification early this month indicating that every food package containing genetically modified food shall bear at the top of its principal display panel, the words ‘GM.’
Indian consumers will soon have something that most of the world has been urging their governments for a long time…the opportunity to know whether the packaged food that they are buying contains genetically modified organisms.
The second most populous country in the world will be little more empowered and can decide whether they would like to consume genetically modified foods or not, with later preferable dominating most decisions taken by consumers.
Greenpeace India, welcomed this step by the government but also criticized officials suggesting that it would hardly make an impact. “While labeling does give the consumer a chance to avoid genetically modified food in the market, what our government seems to forget is that it is impractical here as more than 90% of our food is unprocessed and non-packaged and forms a chunk of the unorganized sector,” said sustainable agriculture campaigner, Greenpeace, Shivani Shah.
The gazette notification also lacks clarity on the threshold for the presence of GM ingredients. It mentions no mechanisms on how this will this be monitored, and whether this is applicable to both primary and processed foods.
The GM food debate intensified in India in 2010 when Bt Brinjal was approved for commercial release by Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). Massive public outcry against the proposal of commercial release led the then environment minister, Jairam Ramesh to hold public meetings across the country. But the overwhelming response seemed to be of restraint and fear.
Following the various public consultations attended by around 8000 people, on February 8, 2010 Ramesh announced a moratorium on the release of the Bt brinjal. Ramesh also said the GEAC, which had recommended approval of Bt brinjal last October, would soon have a name change – with ‘approvals’ changed to ‘appraisal.’ The idea was to garner more trust in the GEAC.
Interestingly, a similar labeling debate is brewing in US too. The Guardian recently reported that last month, nearly one million signatures were delivered to county registrars throughout California calling for a referendum on the labeling of genetically engineered foods. If the measure, “The right to know genetically engineered food act”, which will be on the ballot in November, passes, California will become the first US state to require that GM foods be labeled on the package.
In US, around 70% of packaged food products contain traces of GM crops because ingredients like corn, soya and canola oil are genetically modified. But in Europe, only 5% food sold contains GM traces. Europe also has a ‘zero tolerance’ policy that bans any imported food from containing even traces of GM substances.
‘Extra labeling only confuses the consumer,’ a biotech spokesman said.That the Food and Drug Administration is opposed to labeling foods that are genetically modified is no surprise anymore, but a report in theWashington Post almost two years ago indicated the FDA won’t even allow food producers to label their foods as being free of genetic modification.
That may all be changing. Last month, nearly 1m signatures were delivered to county registrars throughout California calling for a referendum on the labeling of genetically engineered foods. If the measure, “The Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act”, which will be on the ballot in November, passes, California will become the first state in the nation to require that GM foods be labeled as such on the package.
This is not the first time that the issue has come up in California. Several labeling laws have been drafted there, but none has made it out of legislative committee. Lawmakers in states like Vermont and Connecticut have also proposed labeling legislation, which has gone nowhere in the face of stiff industry opposition. And the US Congress has likewise seen sporadic, unsuccessful attempts to mandate GM food labeling since 1999.
There are many reasons for the doubts and debates over consuming GM food. One of the main reasons are the potential health impacts. While a section of scientists claim that the side effects, if any are very mild, the World Health Organization (WHO) and many other health experts have acknowledged that there are possibilities of serious allergies and other diseases.
There are also NO independent studies that validate the long-term safety or health risks associated with consuming GM foods.
Another issue that has failed to restore the trust of people in GM foods is that most of these GM crop varieties have been developed by multinational seed giants and tested for safety by them. The GM seeds usually cost higher than the traditional varieties as they claim various qualities like high-yields, pest resistance, drought resistance and many others.
Many people are also not comfortable with the idea that their ‘food’ is developed, owned and patented by a multinational company.
April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.