Monday, June 18, 2012
GM label on packaged food soon
by Jayashree Nandi
The Times of India
June 18, 2012
NEW DELHI - Soon Indian consumers will have the opportunity to know whether the packaged food that they are buying contains genetically modified organisms. But will that help? In India, where a majority of food is unprocessed and non-packaged, labeling on packaged food may hardly cover the huge populations’ right to choose.
A gazette notification issued by the ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution early this month says that every food package containing genetically modified food shall bear at the top of its principal display panel, the words ‘GM.’
So now consumers in India are a little more empowered and can decide whether they would like to consume genetically modified foods. Greenpeace India, an environmental NGO, welcomed this step by the government but said 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.
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.
There are also very few independent studies that validate the 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.