Economy vs science: GMO food tech causes clashes among Indian food sector

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

Opinions are divided in India over the use of GMO foods to augment the local food system. ©Getty Images
Opinions are divided in India over the use of GMO foods to augment the local food system. ©Getty Images

Related tags India Gm foods

Opinions are divided in India over the use of GMO foods to augment the local food system, with some experts renewing calls to approve its usage to help reduce food costs and environmental pollution, but others urging caution as the ‘scientific concerns’ are too great.

India has traditionally been a ‘no-GMO’ country, a status recently reinforced when the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) announced a long list of 24 foods that would need to be accompanied with mandatory ‘No-GM’ or ‘GM-Free’ certificates starting from January 2021.

This comprehensive list includes many common items, including the top four global crops maize, wheat, rice and soybean; a variety of fruits from apples to papayas and pineapples, all beans (kidney beans, French beans, pinto beans etc), and many vegetables including eggplants and potatoes.

“[FSSAI has issued this order to] ensure the safety and wholesomeness of articles of food imported into India, [and will] apply to every consignment of food products [within these 24 categories],”​ FSSAI Director (Imports) Dr Amit Sharma said in a formal statement.

Indian trade association All India Food Processors’ Association (AIFPA) has backed the government’s decision so far, saying that there are ‘scientific concerns’ behind this.

“The mere fact that genetic modification of crops is a scientific development is not enough to accept it - Indian food scientists and processors are not convinced of any health benefits of GM Foods for consumers,”​ AIFPA President Dr Subodh Jindal told FoodNavigator-Asia​.

“Rather there are concerns of possible ill effects. The precaution taken by FSSAI of 'No-GM Certification' is purely from a safety perspective.

He cited examples of ‘devastating results’ scientific developments had wrought on India in the past such as how the introduction of chemical pesticides when under foreign rule impacted its traditionally organic farming industry, and the damage hydrogenated vegetable oils caused to public health.

“There is also a commercial catch to GM crops, where the seeds cannot be reproduced by farmers as their genetic structure is tweaked by the companies [so] seeds have to be purchased from them again and again making agriculture bound and subservient to them,”​ he said.

Interestingly, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) previously stressed that the genetically modified Golden Rice would be made available via public distribution systems​ and not private companies once ready for commercialisation, but it is not clear whether this can or would be the same for other types of GM foods.

On the flip side, there are also food industry experts calling for the government to reconsider the benefits of this technology for the food sector.

“India would definitely benefit a lot from GMO technology – the government has been slow to accept this tech, but there are many benefits from it that the local food industry needs, including the reduction of pests and diseases besieging rice and other food products,”​ International Potato Center Asia Regional Director and food commodities expert Samarendu Mohanty told FoodNavigator-Asia​.

“One of the main reasons here is because rice or other foods produced via this technology would require much less pesticides or herbicides, which in turn translates to less cost for local farmers and thus lower costs in food prices [in a country that is not particularly well-to-do].

“The reduced use of these chemicals would also be better for the environment [in the country with some of the most polluted rivers in the world].”

Moreover, Mohanty opined that GMO technology may not be kept at bay for too long, especially with Golden Rice set to appear on the market in Bangladesh​ soon.

“Bangladesh policies are extremely progressive and scientific even though it is a Least Developed Country (LDC), and it will be very interesting to see what happens when Golden Rice enters the market,”​ he said.

“It obviously neighbours India, and if this is profitable, then there is no doubt it is going to make its way across the border to enter India - then what will you (the government) do? How to maintain control?”

Mohanty’s query has some validity as back in 2009, a form of GM eggplant called Bt brinjal was initially approved but suddenly put on a moratorium in 2010, catching the sector by surprise.

The Indian government has not lifted the moratorium to date, but the result of this was that Bt brinjal seeds or saplings are still circulating in the Indian market today, though deemed illegal.

The issue here is that there is a heavy penalty for farmers who unknowingly plant or sell such crops based on the lower cost factor - Under the local Environment Protection Act, the planting of illegal GM crops could end in five years of jail or a INR 100,000 (US$1,353 ) penalty, extremely high for economically-challenged farmers.

If history repeats itself, the consequences could be more concerning, as rice is far more widely grown than eggplant in the country.

Impacts on trade

This anti-GMO approach may also have implications when it comes to trade – many countries worldwide have embraced the commercial production of GM foods, including developed economies such as Japan, Australia, the United States and Canada, which India is highly hopeful of establishing a close trade relationship with​.

“India and Canada are highly complementary economies, given the nature of their bilateral trade,”​ ​ Trade Promotion Council of India (TPCI) Chairman Mohit Singla told us previously.

“[Indian businesses would also do well to focus on Canada as] its partnerships (North American Free Trade Agreement and United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement) may be seen as a conduit to the North American market and space in future.”

India is banking on food products including fruits and legumes to establish this relationship – both notably present within the list of foods that require non-GM certificates.

Even if the hope is more on exporting these to Canada, trade relationships are generally expected to be mutually beneficial and imposing no-GM regulations could be a hindrance - over 140 GMO crops have been approved for sale in Canada including maize, potatoes, tomatoes, canola and more.

That said, Dr Jindal does not agree that this is sufficient reasoning to introduce GMO for India, as every country has its own ‘specific circumstances’.

“It is a faulted (sic) perception that if GM foods are adopted by Australia and Canada then other countries should follow suit. This is a scientific issue and cannot be merely copied or accepted on a commercial basis,”​ he said.

“Each country will have their specific circumstances.  This freedom should not be suppressed and the government is examining this scientifically.

“India also has to also worry about its over 650 million farmers, which is a huge count, ten times more than the entire population of both Canada and Australia put together. It is the sacred responsibility of the government to safeguard the health of [the Indian] population.”

Light ahead for GMO?

The recent World Risk Poll by Lloyds has revealed that some 30% of Indian consumers believe that GMO technology will ‘mostly help’ the country over the next 20 years – even more than numbers in technologically-progressive countries such as China (16%) and Singapore (17%).

“I think what’s important is that the findings give a voice to [many] citizens especially in those places where little or no official data exists,”​ Lloyds Register Food Safety Challenge Director Tim Slingsby told us.

“The 30% of Indian consumers that feel GM foods will help the country is actually above the global average of 21%. [The important thing here is] that communication about food risks should be very specific, so that people are enabled rather than disabled by it.”

Despite the government’s cautious approach so far, Mohanty also believes under the right circumstances, they could still lean towards accepting GM technology.

“It’s not so much the Modi government that is against this - we’ve seen the Prime Minister being accepting of GM canola oil, for example - but various organisations who are opposed, so they are still being cautious,”​ he said.

“There is enough food now so they are satisfied to go along without GMO and not make a decision. But this is a government very bold in making their decisions, and they have already shown openness to GMO previously, so if we have a real food crisis, then they could decide [boldly again].”

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