INDIA – Citizens and civil society groups have raised concern on the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India’s (FSSAI’s) draft Genetically Modified (GM) foods regulations claiming it will give a leeway for entry of the goods into the country.

Following years of hesitation on the issue, the FSSAI had released the draft regulations on GM foods on November 15, 2021 and sought public opinion over a period of 60 days.

 With January 15 as the deadline for receiving feedback from the stakeholders, the groups have also demanded an extension for submitting comments along with making available the draft in regional languages.

The draft regulations by FSSAI mention a system for all importers of some select crops — apple, eggplant, maize, wheat, melon, pineapple, papaya, plum, potato, rice, soybean, sugar beet, sugarcane, tomato, sweet pepper, squash, flax-seed, bean plum and chicory — for a mandatory ‘non-GM-origin-cum-GM-Free’ certification from January 1, but this is not applicable to processed GM foods.

Since April 2016, the issue of GM foods had been left virtually unregulated between the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the FSSAI under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the activists said in a release.

“It is clear that FSSAI is hoping to pave the way for easier entry of GM foods into India — the draft regulations reflect either this, or a lack of application of mind, or dearth of expertise/competence and responsibility towards the regulator’s mandate,” the release said.

GM considered unsafe

According to Kapil Shah, the Director of the organic farming material supplier, Jatan Trust, for transgenic technology to get clearance, regulations have to be compromised as they are not safe.

“FSSAI is doing exactly that at this point of time, in helping applicants find an easy route in. The most important duty of the food safety authority as assigned under Section 16 of the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 is that of ensuring safe and wholesome food, which is not being addressed in these draft regulations, especially given that there is enough scientific evidence on the adverse impacts of GM foods,” said Shah.

He added that both the Bt brinjal and GM HT mustard public debates, as well as consumer surveys in the past, have made it amply clear that Indian citizens do not want GM foods entering their diets.

He pointed out that most state governments have also taken a policy stand against GM technology in food and farming systems. Shah noted that the ploy of a frustrated biotech industry to try and bring in GM foods through the backdoor is clear from these draft regulations.

“In the past, when FSSAI constituted a scientific panel on GM foods, we had to point out how wrong their understanding of conflict of interest was, and also how such panels should be of experts on biosafety. We showed how members of their Scientific Panel were into GM crop development,” Kavitha Kuruganti of the Coalition for a GM-Free India added.

Pointing out that things have not changed much as the panel is reconstituted, Kuruganti said there is no rationale for the selection of the experts into the scientific panel.

“While this is so, the proposed regulations as notified in November 2021 are about FSSAI compromising on citizen interests and facilitating the food industry’s business as usual. In fact, these regulations have been put out for public feedback after industry’s inputs have already been obtained. We do not accept these draft regulations,” he declared.

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