Drop that pack of baby food you picked up to supplement your baby's diet; that jar of canola oil from Canada you chose hoping for better heart health; and even that box of cereals you love for breakfast - they are Genetically Modified. Not only are they harmful to your health, it is also illegal.
Centre for Science and Environment, the watchdog body that had earlier blown the lid on the level of pollutants in aerated drinks, has now exposed how companies have flooded the Indian markets with GM foods.
CSE tested 65 products picked up randomly from retail outlets. Of these, 32 percent tested GM positive. That means, roughly one in every three products contained genetically modified ingredients which we are consuming without even knowing it.
Of the samples tested, an overwhelming majority are imported. They contain soy, corn and canola oil and are imported from Canada, the Netherlands, Thailand, UAE and the US. All the Indian origin cottonseed oil tested was positive.
Among the products that tested positive are:
Canola oil brands ('Farrell' imported from UAE by Jindal Retails (India) Pvt Ltd; 'Hudson' from UAE, marketed by Dalmia Continental Pvt Ltd; 'Jivo' imported from Canada by Jivo Wellness Pvt Ltd);and cottonseed oil brands from India ('Ankur', 'Ginni', 'Tirupati' and 'Vimal').
Packaged foods like 'Pancake syrup original' and 'Popcorn Hot N' Spicy' -- both products of American Garden – imported in India by Bajoria Foods Pvt Ltd; 'FrootLoops' -- a sweetened multigrain cereal from Kellogg's imported by Newage Gourmet Foods;and 'Crispy corn snacks' from Bugles – distributed by General MillsInc, USA and imported by Newage Gourmet Foods.
Three products made false claims suggesting that no GM ingredient is used. These were 'Candrop' Canola oil from Canada imported by Century Edible Cooking Oils Pvt Ltd; 'Mori-nu silken tofu' from the US, imported by Olive Tree Trading Pvt Ltd; and 'Prom Plus sweet whole kernel corn' from Thailand imported by Guru Kirpa Impex.
Four products that carried labels of genetic engineering technology were 'Butter and Garlic Croutons' from Mrs Cubbison's; 'Corn puffs' by Trix – distributed by General Mills Sales Inc, USA; 'Original syrup' from Aunt Jemima – distributed by Quaker Oats in the US; and 'Dark corn syrup' from Karo, US. All four products were imported by Newage Gourmet Foods.
The five samples of cottonseed oil from India that were tested, were all positive. This is because BT-cotton is the single GM crop that has been allowed for cultivation in the country. What is the main cause of concern in this case is that GM cottonseed oil cannot be used for human consumption. Yet, it being mixed in other edible oils, particularly vanaspati.
The Indian Government does not allow import of GM foods into the country. Yet, the wide-availability of such products indicates a lack of regulation in the sector as well as the prevalence of loopholes that the importers are taking advantage of.
While the jury is still out on the impact of GM foods on our health, the fact that such foods are being served up without adequate labelling takes away the consumers right to making an informed choice.
Genetically Modified foods are those whose DNA has been altered. "GM food involves taking genes (DNA) from different organisms and inserting them in food crops. There is a concern that this 'foreign' DNA can lead to risks such as toxicity, allergic reactions, and nutritional and unintended impacts," says Sunita Narain, Director General of CSE.
However, the Coalition for a GM-Free India says, that there is scientific evidence of numerous health risks from GM foods. They say that experiments conducted in different parts of the world show that GM foods are not safe. Adverse impacts include effects on growth and development of an organism, organ damage, immune system disorders, cancerous growth, reproductive health problems including infertility, allergies etc., amongst other impacts, have been seen, the Coalition says.
They strongly oppose the sale of GM foods in Indian markets. "This is not just negligence but adoption of an anti-citizen policy by the Government of India. We say this because the government knowingly created a regulatory vacuum in which there is no authority taking responsibility to put a check on such GM foods from coming into our food supply chain. This is highly irresponsible and reprehensible. Let us not forget that BJP came to power with a promise in its election manifesto that said that 'Genetically Modified foods will not be allowed without full scientific evaluation on its long-term effects on soil, production and biological impact on consumers' and what we are witnessing today is a clear reneging on this promise", said the Coalition in a statement.
Due to these concerns, most countries, including India, have taken a 'precautionary' approach to GM food. Stringent regulations have been put in place for approval and labelling. Several countries have made it mandatory to label GM food so that consumers can make an informed decision.
In India, it is against the law. "Our government says it has not allowed the import of GM food products. Then how is this happening? We have found that laws are not the problem – the regulatory agencies are," asks Narain.
Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general, CSE, adds, "We had been hearing about the presence of illegal GM food in India, and decided to do a reality check by testing processed foods. We were shocked to know the scale in which GM foods have penetrated the Indian market. The regulatory authorities are to blame here – the FSSAI has not allowed any GM food on paper, but has failed to curb its illegal sales."
The Law on GM
• The Environment Protection Act (EPA) strictly prohibits import, export, transport, manufacture, process, use or sale of any genetically engineered organisms except with the approval of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) under the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.
• The 2006 Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA) prohibits import, manufacture, use or sale of GM food without FSSAI's approval.
• The Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules 2011 make it mandatory for GM products to be clearly labelled on the food package.
• The Foreign Trade (Development and Regulation) Act 1992 says that GM food cannot be imported without the permission of GEAC.
• Anyone who imports, manufactures, uses or sells GM food, is liable to be prosecuted under the above Acts.