India: US double standards deny consumers "informed choice" when it comes to GM-food Print E-mail

 New Delhi --  Monday September 4 2006

FARMFRONT

RURAL ECONOMY

Ignore US threat, go for GM labelling

ASHOK B SHARMA

India’s attempt to formulate mandatory labelling laws for genetically modified (GM) foods has met with the US challenge in the WTO committee on technical barriers to trade (TBT).
 
This was, however, expected as the US does not favour mandatory labelling of GM foods. It is of the view that GM foods are “substantially equivalent” to their non-GM counterparts and labelling of GM food would amount to “trade restrictive measures.”
 
This raises a very basic question. If US believes that GM foods are substantially equivalent to their non-GM counterparts, then why it is called “novel food” and why there is a need to patent such innovations ? A gene inserted into the crop through transgenic technology with the help of markers and promoters will definitely make it behave in a different manner. The developers of transgenic crops do claim that the concerned crops are “herbicide tolerant, pest tolerant” and so on. This is enough to prove that GM crops are not substantially equivalent to their non-GM counterparts.
 
Mandatory labelling of GM foods is for giving the consumers an informed choice. It is strange for the country like US which is the largest democracy in the world to deny informed choice to consumers in the name of “restrictive trade measures.” US through its Bioterror Preparedness Act wants disclosures on imported food items. US Food and Drugs Administration (USFDA) insists on disclosures about serval ingredients used in food item. Then why should the case be different for GM foods ?
 
It is the duty of national governments to protect the health of its citizens. There are reported cases across the world about health hazards relating to GM foods. India’s proposal for mandatory labelling of GM food is an humble attempt to give consumers an informed choice and to protect the health of its citizens.
 
US has also said that India should refer its mandatory labelling norms for GM foods to WTO also under sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures. This demand is totally misplaced. Simply labelling of GM food does not imply an SPS measure. Denying imports of GM food may involve an SPS measure.
 
Mandatory labelling is necessary to check imports of unapproved GM foods. There are already reported cases of such unapproved GM foods entering the country. Many countries, including India have their own approval process for GM crops and foods, based on established scientific principles. India has so far approved only Bt cotton, which means that all other GM products entering the country are unapproved.
 
The commerce ministry in its changes to the Foreign Trade Policy has rightly inserted the provision for mandatory labelling of GM products. It has prescribed penalty for importers for importing unlabelled GM products. However, as the health ministry could not yet put in place the detailed guidelines, the the commerce ministry’s new provision for mandatory labelling has been kept in abeyance till March 31, 2007.
 
US has also questioned India’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) role. It said “The scope of the 1989 Rule under the 1986 Environment Protection Act is vague and appears to be broader than any other existing regulatory system in the world for biotechnology products, ie covering products such as cheese, wine, beer or other fermented products made using enzymes produced by genetically engineered bacteria.” Saying so US hinted at the recent pact it has signed with India on farm research. Does this mean that US want our GM approval laws be changed to suit its purpose ? Before doing so we must know that the slack USFDA rules have been already challenged by interest groups in the law court in that country.
 
Earlier in US the hazardous GM Star Link corn, which was meant for animal consumption, slipped into the food chain. All such contaminated food items had to be recalled from retail stores. Recently there is a case of US long-grain rice being contaminated with the GM variety LLRICE-601. LLRICE-601 is not approved for human consumption. The European Union which has appropriate laws in place has acted in time to check imports of contaminated rice. US should know that countries have the right to refuse imports on GM products by invoking the precautionary principles under the Cartagena Protocol.