The GM scare
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 06 Sep 2018 3 Comments

At the height of the controversy surrounding the official release for commercial cultivation of the genetically modified mustard (DMH-11), a close colleague of this author wrote a strongly worded letter to Shri Harshvardhan, Union Minister for Science and Technology, pointing to the way in which the President of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences in New Delhi was twisting scientific facts in favour of the GM mustard, violating basic infallible scientific truths. This author had politely declined a suggestion from a Fellow for his nomination to the Fellowship of this Academy, which is riddled with politics and lorded over by an unscrupulous “scientist” who has taken Indian agriculture for a “long ride”.


To cut a long story short, the commercial release of DMH-11 was put on hold. This time around, more worrisome facts are emerging. To be precise, GM food, especially infant formula, is creeping into the market without the full knowledge of the customer. In a first- of- its-kind study in India, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi, has tested 65 products available in the market to examine if they contained genetically modified ingredients.


It transpired that 32 per cent of the products examined tested GM positive, and almost 80 per cent of these products are imported. It is not as if the mischief is only played through uncontrolled imports. There are unscrupulous Indian players who use GM products in infant food manufacture.


At the root of the problem is the fact that India does not have in place a foolproof biosafety protocol to either test the biosafety of GM crops, and, much worse, a foolproof labelling system on food products. As of now, India cannot officially grow any GM food crops. Whatever is grown is done in a clandestine manner. Even field testing on GM crops is done without the knowledge of the regulatory authority.


If one must safeguard the health of Indians, to start with infants, one must get the FSSAI’s (Food Safety and Standards Authority – a seal on the food packet a customer can see while buying) act together to prevent illegality. Right now, that is not the case. To start with, this apex food regulator must identify all products containing GM products and without hesitation, prosecute the companies which are trading in these products. Safety assessment must be done on the basis of individual cases and not merely using the yardstick provided by the manufacturers. And those who do this must apply very strict statistical procedures (there are enough rigorous testing procedures available) to arrive at definitive conclusions. 


The most worrisome aspect is that India simply does not have a foolproof labelling system. USA, which extensively grows GM crops, always puts a label on the food packet whether it is of GM or non-GM origin. This can only be done when the regulatory system does a stringent foolproof job, which is not the case in India. All products, where GM ingredients are suspected to be used, deliberately or inadvertently, must be labelled as such, even if the end product does not contain a protein derived from a GM deoxyribonucleic acid (popularly known as DNA). Where GM ingredients have been used, perhaps inadvertently, safety threshold limits should be set and displayed on the product packet. In any case, the onus of proving inadvertent use must squarely rest with the manufacturer.


An important impediment in the above recommended procedure is the multilingual nature of India, where English, if used uniformly, will have its own drawback among non-English speaking populace. Hence, a more welcome procedure could be the use of symbols. The recently introduced “Jaivik Bharat” for foods of organic origin could be a preferable choice among speakers of Indian languages.


Establishing biosafety standards for GM products is, without doubt, the biggest hurdle in the case of labelling. This starts at the very first stage of field safety testing, as been the experience of this author who, in 2006 worked as chairman of a Supreme Court suggested Independent Expert Committee to look into the biosafety of Bt brinjal. The committee constituted of eminent nutritionists, agronomists, physiologists, entomologists, economists, farmers’ representatives and activists.


It found that the data provided by Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Company, then a subsidiary of Monsanto) showed several instances of breach of safety protocol at the very testing stage. The problem that stares at India regarding GM foodstuff, including GM crops, is that currently GM labelling regulations are based on faulty science which is impossible to enforce. We must remember, without fail, that when GM contaminated food is fed to innocent infants, as has been shown by the afore-mentioned findings of CSE, a whole new generation of Indians is adversely affected. This cannot be allowed to stay as a black mark on the conscience of India.


The author is former Professor, National Science Foundation, The Royal Society, Belgium & Senior Fellow, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, The Federal Republic of Germany. He can be contacted at

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