Food safety and standards: Backdoor entry of GMOs
By Bhogtoram Mawroh, Janakpreet Singh and Stefan W Lyngdoh
One of the most important arguments against GMOs is the lack of 100% safety data. Consumption of genetically modified foods can cause the development of antibiotic-immune diseases. There are also unknown future effects with cross-pollination with wildlife that may cause harm to other organisms that thrive in the natural environment. Culturally, many people are not comfortable with the idea of transferring animal genes into plants and vice versa.
As the prospect of the repeal of the three infamous Farm Bills neared reality (the laws were finally repealed on November 19, 2021), on November 15, 2021, the Union Government announced safety and standards Foods (Genetically Modified or Modified Foods) Regulations, 2021. The purported aim of the initiative is to regulate the market for foods or processed foods containing or produced from GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), GEO (Genetically Modified Organisms ) or LMOs (Living Modified Organisms). In reality, this is a sneaky attempt to circumvent the ongoing debate about the need for GM (genetically modified) crops in India for both production and consumption. This is in line with the Seeds Bill 2019 introduced by the Union Government which, by including GM seeds in the bill, attempts to do the same. This is despite the fact that the issue of GM crops is still quite contested in the country with only brinjal and Bt cotton having gained approval till date. The debate is still very much alive.
A GMO is an organism whose genetic material has been modified using genetic engineering techniques. It is the result of a laboratory process where genes from a species’ DNA (which may be from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals, or even humans) are artificially extracted and forced into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal. Some of the benefits that have been cited from the introduction of GMOs into agriculture are increased crop yields, reduced food or drug production costs, increased resistance to pests and insects, reduced need for pesticides, improved nutrient composition and feed quality, resistance to pests and diseases. , greater food security for the growing world population. GM crops also grow faster than traditionally grown foods and are a boon in places that experience frequent droughts or where the soil is incompetent for farming. They are also reported to be nutrient dense and contain more minerals and vitamins than those found in traditionally grown foods. However, there are also major concerns.
One of the most important arguments against GMOs is the lack of 100% safety data. Consumption of genetically modified foods can cause the development of antibiotic-immune diseases. There are also unknown future effects with cross-pollination with wildlife that may cause harm to other organisms that thrive in the natural environment. Culturally, many people are not comfortable with the idea of transferring animal genes into plants and vice versa. Kavitha Kuruganti, a well-known social activist known for her work related to sustainable agricultural livelihoods and farmers’ rights, has prepared a compilation of scientific references with summaries on the adverse effects of GM crops/foods. The list contains summaries of 339 scientific papers and 39 reports/magazine articles/web pages on various topics, for example, the vagueness and unpredictability of genetic engineering science and technology, health impacts, environmental impacts, horizontal gene transfer, gene flow, contamination and field trial risk, myths about performance with GM crops and other related issues. But perhaps the most negative implication for a country like India is that it would start to depend more on industrial countries as it is likely that food production would be controlled by them in time to come, which that would benefit industries and not small business non-GMO farmers. More than half of the global seed market is controlled by just four companies, namely Mosanto (US), DuPont (US), Syngenta (Switzerland) and Groupe Limagrain (France), with the Indian figure being more than 60% in India. It will be the same corporations that will control the trade in GMOs threatening India’s seed sovereignty and small, marginal farmers. The technology therefore also has its drawbacks.
In a situation where there is a great deal of uncertainty about the possible implications of accepting GMOs in the food system, an important principle that can help in making a decision about adopting GMOs is the use of the principle precautionary. In the 2004 book “Ecological Medicine: Healing the Earth, Healing Us”, Carolyn Raffensperger discussed this principle in detail in the chapter “The Precautionary Principle: The Golden Rule for the New Millennium”.
According to Carolyn Raffensperger, the words “precautionary principle” have been translated from the German Vorsorgeprinzip, the literal translation of which is “forecaring” – worrying about the future. The principle is found in the preamble to the 1992 environmental treaty known as the Rio Declaration: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a a reason to postpone cost-effective measures to prevent environmental damage. degradation.” In 1998, the Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle was held in Wisconsin, USA, attended by scientists, lawyers, policy makers and environmentalists from the United States, Canada and A definition of the precautionary principle was agreed as follows: when an activity presents threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures must be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully scientifically established.Basically, the definition means don’t wait for the dead bodies of trees, children, and salmon to be piled up in the streets (concrete evidence) before to act, that is to say that it is better to prevent than to cure.
Carolyn Raffensperger specifically mentions agriculture as an important sector where the precautionary principle has a crucial role to play. According to her, “if we cannot apply the precautionary principle to agriculture and find a way to feed ourselves without destroying the planet, then the principle is worthless. It also means that we are probably not educable as a species. Rather than inscribing agriculture in nature, the principle encourages the opposite. Agroecology is one of these alternatives to industrial agriculture (which includes GMOs). However, there are those who dispute this assertion arguing that a shift to such systems may spell danger to global food security.
A 2019 report titled “Agroecological and Other Innovative Approaches: A Report of the High Level Expert Panel on Food Security and Nutrition for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems that Improve Food Security and Nutrition” examines the argument that agroecology can feed the world. The document agrees that the world’s population is growing and will need to be fed. Some claim that agricultural production must increase by 50%, but not everyone agrees. However, according to some estimates, enough food is already produced for an additional 2 billion people. There is also a concomitant trend that shows that despite high levels of production, various forms of food insecurity and malnutrition persist. About 820 million people still suffer from hunger and an estimated 2 billion people are obese and a further 2 billion suffer from nutritional deficiencies or hidden hunger.
According to the report, increasing production alone may not be enough to achieve the four dimensions of food security, namely availability, access, utilization and stability. Since agroecology not only focuses on productivity but also on issues of social inequalities and power asymmetries, including gender and ethnic minorities, it is better placed than conventional food systems to s tackling the problem of food insecurity. Moreover, meeting caloric needs does not automatically translate into nutritional security. The industrial agricultural model, of which GMOs are also a part, has led to an increase in productivity, but at the cost of loss of biodiversity, land degradation, loss of soil fertility and pollution. chemical endangering the health of the entire planet. At the same time, several studies have challenged the idea that agroecological systems are less productive than industrial models. Some of them are mentioned in the report.
Given the uncertainty surrounding the adoption of GMOs and the need to adhere to the precautionary principle, the Participatory Guarantee Systems Organic Council (PGSOC), which is a network of 21 civil society organizations, farmers and consumer groups promoting organic farming and practicing participatory development of agro-ecological transformations for over 15 years, requested the withdrawal of the Food Safety and Standards (Genetically Modified or Modified Foods) Regulations, 2021. He submitted his concerns to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), with NESFAS being one of the contributing members. For the benefit of the farming community and the general Indian public, it is hoped that the Union Government of India will listen to the concerns.
About the Authors: Bhogtoram Mawroh is Senior Associate, Research and Knowledge Management at NESFAS and can be contacted at [email protected] Janak Preet Singh is Senior Associate, Livelihood at NESFAS and can be contacted at [email protected] Stefan W Lyngdoh is an Associate Researcher at NESFAS and can be contacted at [email protected]