Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, the nodal body for food regulation in India, is unaware if fresh food imported over the last five years contained genetically modified varieties. FSSAI also does not have any information about the tests that were conducted to detect GM varieties. This is the result of an RTI investigation conducted by DTE. This raises the question of whether or not the fruits and vegetables currently sold in the country – at supermarkets and roadside vendors – are free from GM varieties.
A genetically modified organism is created when genes from another organism, plant, or bacteria are inserted into a new plant variety. There isn’t enough research or data on the effects of GMOs on human health over the long term. Therefore, the scientific community is divided on whether they should be consumed.
Around a dozen GMOs are farmed on a large scale around the world. A 2015 report from The Royal Society in London, the oldest continuous scientific academy, stated that 28 countries allowed large-scale cultivation of GMO crops. The Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006 in India prohibits the import, manufacture, sale, or use of GM foods without FSSAI approval. The country has only allowed the cultivation and importation of one GMO, cotton, which is a non-food plant. India will allow commercial mustard cultivation in 2022. However, the decision has been challenged at the Supreme Court and is currently pending.
In order to assess the system of testing for the presence of GMO varieties, dte submitted four RTI requests to FSSAI from February to September of this year. The applications asked (i) If any tests have been done to confirm that GMOs are present in fruits and vegetables imported within the last five years under the Food Safety and Standards (Import) Regulations of 2017. (ii) Has a test been conducted to confirm the existence of GMOs on fruit and vegetables imported during the past five years? (i
FSSAI responded to the first question by saying: “Notification for regulations on GM food is pending. To ensure that only non-GM crops are imported to the country, an order dated 21.08.2020 has been issued, and subsequent rulings have also been published regarding the requirement of a non-GM or GM Free Certificate accompanied with imported consignments of food [sic].
In its reply, the FSSAI referred to the first order of three it had passed to regulate the import of GMOs in 2020-2021. These are some samples. The order of August 21, 2020, was unconditional and sought to “ensure that only Non GM foods are imported into India.” The order mandated that a non-GM/GM-free certification, issued by the exporting nation’s “Competent Authority,” must accompany each consignment of 24 different food crops: alfalfa (alfalfa), apple, Argentinian canola (eggplant), chicory (cowpea), flax seed, maize (maize), melon, pineapple, plums, Polish canola(plum), potato, rice, safflower The crops are either under cultivation, are the subject of research or are India’s main food imports.
The second order, which was dated February 8, 2021, allowed a tolerance limit of 1 percent for GMOs to be present in imported food crops. This limit, according to experts, is far too high. Coalition for a GM-Free India (a platform of organizations, individuals, and activists representing farmers, consumers, and experts) wrote a letter after this FSSAI’s order to the Union Health Minister, stating that the country has laboratories capable of testing GMO presence at even 0.01 percent, which they believe should be an acceptable limit.
The third order, dated February 24, 2021, changed the requirement for a non-GM/GM-free certification from “the competent national authority” of the exporting nation to “authorised regional government authorities.”
The FSSAI responded to other RTI questions by saying either that “required information” was not available or that “no such information is currently available.” These responses are concerning because India has seen a substantial increase in its fruit and vegetable imports from countries that produce GMOs. According to The Royal Society, the US, Brazil, and Argentina are three of the most important countries for GMO cultivation. The US, Brazil, and Argentina are major food exporters to India. The US exported apples to India worth more than Rs 1,811 crore in 2018-2022. In the period 2018-2022, the US exported apples worth over Rs 1,811 crore to India.
In 2022-23, Brazil and Argentina will be India’s two top sources of degummed soybean oil. According to the Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry, India’s import of fresh fruits and vegetables has increased by 25% in the last decade.
Suman Sahai is the founder-chairperson and director of Gene Campaign in Delhi, an advocacy group that conducts research. She told date, “India has no mechanism for monitoring, surveillance, or ensuring that genetically engineered crops are not imported.” Sahai says that India lacks the trained personnel to collect samples at entry points and test them for GM products.
The country does not have the infrastructure necessary to test for GMOs. The Food and Agribusiness Strategic Advisory and Research Group of Yes Bank released “Metastudy of Food Testing Laboratories In India” on February 18, 2019. It found that only 2% of India’s food-testing labs can detect GM products.
Kavitha Kuruganti is the founder of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture. The organization works to improve agricultural livelihoods. She says that one possible solution could be giving import preference to countries that don’t cultivate GMO varieties. She says that even consignments with non-GMO certification should be tested.
The issue will only get worse as countries continue to develop GMOs. Australia has developed a GM banana variety that is awaiting approval for commercial cultivation. The list of GMOs is likely to grow.