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Imports of GM edible oil sans proper labelling spark fresh controversy
Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Ashwani Maindola, New Delhi and Shraddha Joshi, Mu
With the debate over genetically-modified (GM) crops raging in recent times with regard to the commercialisation of GM mustard, questions were also raised about the quality and origin of GM mustard oil, an imported edible oil.

India, the largest importer of edible oil, has reportedly imported upto 15 million tonne of GM crops or GM crop-based edible oil.

The story of GM crops in India has always been on par with bio-safety norms, hasty approvals, labelling concerns, the lack of monitoring abilities and a general apathy towards the hazards of contamination.

Although such imports are illegal, the importers manage to import due to the lack of labelling norms for such products. Although the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, has, under Section 22, mentioned that GM products cannot be sold without its approval, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) still has to draft labelling norms for these products.

According to a senior official with the country’s apex food regulator, work on the labelling norms is underway, and soon it would put out a draft for the same.

“And the importers usually give reasoning that the traceability of the GM protein is not in the refined oil, therefore it is as good as non-GM crop-based edible oil,” he added.

However, to get the GM mustard crop commercialised has been a tough task. If it gets approved, it will become India’s first officially-approved GM food crop. Even though the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) has given its nod, the union government has put the decision on hold.

Despite the ban on GM crops, various cases have been reported between 2005 and now wherein illegally-produced GM crops are being sold to farmers in the country, and of illegal imports, which had been brought to light by FSSAI, which demanded either a ban or a clear indication on the labels of GM crops. Based on the regulator’s submissions, the court accepted that imports of GM foods continue to be banned.

Experts working on the GM crops have supported the production of the same by throwing light on the benefit they have in boosting food production to meet the demands of the growing population. Where India is yet to finalise its labelling norms, over 60 countries, including members of the European Union (EU), China and Australia, have strict regulations regarding the labelling of products that either contain or are made from GM crops.

There has been constant debates in India and around the world about whether GM crops are safe for human consumption. A few fear biodiversity getting threatened due to the mixing of genetic material of GM crops with that of non-GM crops. Thus, in the midst of this debate, the government has been importing processed soybean and Canola oil made from GM crops. In April 2017, GEAC took a note of the void in the import scenario and held meetings with FSSAI.

The import of GM foods needs approval under laws (i e clearances from the ministry of environment, forest and climate change under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, which assess the impact of GM products on biodiversity, and the health and family welfare ministry, which endorse that  GM products are safe for human consumption under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006).

It is pertinent to note here that for years, the imports of GM crops have been taking place without the clearance from the food safety authorities.
 
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