Did genetically modified foods reach India?
Jayanthi Iyengar
The Economic Times [India's business paper]

AFTER the brouhaha over cheap Chinese imports, the focus has now shifted to genetically modified foods.

Stung by the criticism that genetically engineered foods may have "unknowingly" found their way into India as part of US aid and relief to the Orissa flood victims, the government has begun the process of looking into the issue.

As a result, the commerce ministry has been directed to prepare a note on GM foods, which may figure as part of the deliberations on Agreement on Agriculture, scheduled for review in March.

The good and ill effects of GM foods have been debated endlessly without any sign of a consensus emerging either globally or at home. While there is a strong lobby opposing even the setting up of a working group on biotechnology at WTO ”” issues that make it to the working group level normally become acceptable as heads of negotiation under the WTO ”” there is also a strong group which believes that India should not oppose the US, Canadian and Japanese move.

So also is the issue of GM foods. However, recent allegations by experts like Vandana Shiva, director, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, that GM foods have clandestinely found their way into the country, have once again raised the spectre of Frankenstein Foods.

It is Dr Shiva’s contention that the US has used even a mega disaster like the Orissa cyclone - which killed 35,000 people - to dump "unlabelled" soya and corn on a predominantly rice-eating population.

Medical professionals at AIIMS too have alleged similar things, which has resulted in forcing the government to examine the issue.

Part of the allegations stem from the fact that about two-third of the food ($4.5 million out of the $6.5 million US aid and relief for Orissa), which was imported for the victims was not "labelled", ”” at a time when UK, EU and several other countries have closed their doors to GM foods ”” is being interpreted as these foods being "rejects" which found their way into India.

Similar allegations also surround the genetically engineered Vitamin A rice. Here, it is being alleged that government and quasi government agencies are being roped in by seed companies under the pretext of blindness alleviation to popularise and market the new product.

While these are issues which are likely to be settled only by scientists, doctors and biotechnologists, some facts remain. At the peak of the GM food wave, seed companies like Monsanto invested heavily in biotechnology R&D.

Modified seeds are the end result. These companies are undoubtedly on the prowl, looking for new markets to reap a return on their investments.

It is also true that propaganda against Frankenstein Foods (GM foods) has reached feverish pitch in the West. Everybody starting from Prince Charles to Paul MCartney (ex-Beatle) have spoken against GM foods.

The EU, which is the biggest importer of food stuffs, has indicated that it would like to renegotiate the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Systems Agreement to permit the use of trade restrictions on grounds of consumer preference.

As a result of EU’s position on GM Foods, the US has fallen out as a trading partner. The last two years, particularly 1999, have seen a reversal of GM food’s fortunes, with at least half a dozen companies and retail chains publicly promising to shun GM foods.

Some of the big names include Mark and Spencers, Sainsbury, Carrefour, Irish Superquinn, Tesco, Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury, McDonalds and Blake Brothers in UK and EU. Iceland has taken the whole debate a step forward by becoming the first company to ban GM Foods in its feedstock.

The US government has consistently opposed the labelling of GM foods. At Seattle, US President Bill Clinton made no bones about the US government’s support to biotechnology and biofoods.

US commitment to GM Foods stems from the fact that it is the foremost country which has put large tracts of land under GM Food cultivation, followed by Canada, Australia, Argentina and Japan, to a small extent. Its companies are the largest investors in novel foods.

The emerging opinion is that if at all India does decide to provide access to genetically engineered foods, that it should do so consciously rather than open its doors to clandestine entry.

In that case, India would have would have to join hands with other countries to push for labelling of at least those GM foods, which have been substantially altered in order to allow consumer choice.