The announcement by the Union Government in early April amending the foreign trade policy on the import of genetically modified food and feed, genetically modified organisms and living modified organisms is a step in the right direction. With the end-use of domestically produced and imported genetically modified products being unregulated, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry’s notification states that pre-import approval from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) is mandatory. It also makes it necessary for all imported food and food products that contain GM ingredients to be labelled. Barely a month after the notification by the ministry, the amendment has been put on hold for three months. In a recent development, the GEAC has approved the import of refined soybean oil, on an interim basis, on the condition that the exporting countries certify the GM nature of soybean used for producing the oil. The insistence on labelling is in line with similar draft rules of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in March. The draft rules to amend the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act of 1955 had stated clearly that GM food composed of or containing GM organisms should be labelled. Products derived from such food are required to be labelled even if they do not contain GM organisms. Labelling of GM products has been a contentious issue, attracting worldwide attention ever since the European Union imposed strict guidelines for it.
Countries producing GM crops, particularly the United States, have been against labelling for many reasons. While the U.S. sees producing food using GM technology as yet another process and hence requiring no labelling, the European Union, among others, does not share the view. To pass the EU’s threshold set for GM ingredients in the final products, the exporting countries will be compelled to have separate and special handling of non-GM products from the farm to the table. This becomes a challenge, as certain crops in some countries are predominantly GM varieties. The ripple effect will be a spiralling cost of the exported product. Despite these challenges, the benefits of labelling to customers cannot be overlooked; it helps to inform and empower them. The requirement to label GM foods as well as products derived from them, both imported and locally produced, much like the EU legislation, is a welcome move. But the Health Ministry’s draft rules make no mention of the threshold value for labelling; the label is only required to mention that any product either imported or produced domestically and which “may contain GM material shall indicate that they have been subject[ed] to genetic modification.” This is in sharp contrast to the EU policy on labelling and traceability along the food chain. Having been nearly stonewalled by the EU’s labelling policies, the U.S. and other countries have been pushing the developing countries to open up their markets to GM foods. The Health Ministry’s draft rules are a clear indication of the things to come.