1.Ensuring food safety in the GM age
2.Toxic kinnows, anyone?
1.Ensuring food safety in the GM age
The Hindu, Jul 08, 2005
The proposed Food Safety Bill must ensure labelling and traceability of genetically modified foods.
THE WORLD over, there is a growing demand for governments to make stringent laws for safety assessments of genetically modified (GM) food products before approval is given for marketing them in a country. In India the laws on this crucial aspect of food safety are fuzzy. India depends on voluntary declaration/labelling but has no visible guidelines or code of practice or even accessible equipment for testing.
A new draft Food Safety and Standards Bill, 2005, coming up for approval before the Union Cabinet, is also largely silent on the issue but for an intent to deal with it. The Bill, meant for integrating various food laws and regulations, proposes setting up a Food Safety and Standards Authority along with a Scientific Committee and Panels. All prevalent food laws are proposed to be subsumed/repealed in the new law. Its framers insist that the laws on GM foods - including the significant aspect of traceability and labelling of such foods - would be taken care of once the Bill is adopted by Parliament.
The recent instance of rats fed on GM maize having developed organ abnormalities and changes in the blood profile should alert the authorities on safety and health aspect of such foods, not to speak of the World Health Organisation advisory on the subject.
So far the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee is the only agency authorised to deal with GM foods/micro organisms/crops. This high-profile but rather non-transparent body has approved commercial cultivation of Bt cotton in parts of the country.
As for the entry of GM foods into the country - particularly from the United States and Canada where labelling of GM foods or traceability is not mandatory - it has been left to the authorities at the ports of entry to identify and test them. Lack of information, knowledge, and testing laboratories allows such foods to come in unnoticed. Unless such products are declared as such by the exporters, there is no way of knowing that sweet corn, corn blends, soy nuggets, soy granules, tofu, soy drinks, and soy sauce entering Indian markets are non-GM. Recently, some non-governmental organisations also questioned the regulatory systems for such and other products and sought a ban on GM foods.
In fact, there are differences among nations on GM foods. The European Union and Japan have in place labelling and traceability requirements for GM food products, while the U.S. and Canada have no such standards and believe the technology is safe ostensibly based on trade interests. The U.S., Canada, and Argentina are disputing the EU norm in the World Trade Organisation. Most of the commercial focus is on a limited number of traits, mainly herbicide tolerance and pest resistance, and on crops such as cotton, soybean and maize.
Recently, the WHO called upon Governments to "pause for thought" before approving wider use of GM foods technology. It advised them to undertake a case-by-case risk assessment of each new GM food. While GM foods could increase crop yield, food quality, and the diversity of foods, they could also introduce new types of genes into the food chain, the WHO warned. Although the consumption of GM foods is not known to have caused, so far, any negative health effects, some of the genes introduced in the food chain may cause changes in the genetic make-up of crops. Therefore the potential human health effects should always be assessed before they are cultivated and marketed, with long-term monitoring.
In India, most food safety laws are governed by the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act (PFA). However, since the exercise of bringing all food laws under the Food Safety Bill began, any "enabling provisions" for amendments to the PFA Act have been put on hold.
The Ministry, however, recently notified for harmonisation of bakery products, confectioneries, milk and milk products with Codex Alimentarius standards.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission was created in 1961-62 by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the WHO to develop food standards, guidelines, and related texts such as codes of practice under their joint Food Standards Programme. Its main purpose is to protect the health of consumers, ensure fair practices in the food trade, and promote coordination of all food standards.
The proposed Food Bill has triggered a tussle between the Ministry of Food Processing and the Health Ministry, which has a plethora of rules, regulations, not to talk of the massive manpower under the PFA Act. However, speaking to The Hindu, the chair of the Group of Ministers and Minister for Food and Agriculture Sharad Pawar said the GoM had not made any recommendation on this issue. It had been left to the Union Cabinet to take a decision. He said the Integrated Food Bill was meant to "give a boost to agro-processing and agriculture."
One of the major criticisms of the proposed Bill is that it is industry-driven and the Food Authority is heavily "bureaucratic."
Bejon Misra, the CEO of Consumer Voice, questioned how a Ministry (of Food Processing) entrusted with promoting the interests of industry could be assigned the task of piloting a Bill concerning the health and safety of consumers. His concern was that the proposed Bill did not address key issues of traceability, was silent on what was in store for of small players/vendors, and did not dwell on adulteration. Provisions on imported foods and labelling were weak, and the penalties diluted. The draft Bill in the present form emphasises on food trade over public health.
However, A.N.P. Sinha, the food processing joint-secretary concerned who drafted the Bill, said it was mandatory for all foods including GM foods to conform to the Food and Customs Laws. He, however, conceded that there were not enough testing laboratories, equipment and protocol for testing GM foods. But major concerns had been accommodated in the final draft sent to the Cabinet, he said.
In other words, unless the importer declares, as of now, there is no way to know if the foods entering the country are GM or not. The proposed Food Safety and Standards Bill must change it all for the safety of all.
2.Toxic kinnows, anyone?
Citrus fruit intercropped with Bt cotton, Punjab agriculture dept pleads ignorance
Indian Express, July 7 2005
RAMSAR (ABOHAR), JULY 7: BT may soon come to stand for 'beyond transgression' in Punjab. Unleashed onto a state with little or no knowledge of farming bio transgenic crops, Bt cotton is rapidly compromising all agriculture in areas where it is being grown.
One of the most scary trends to emerge in recent days relates to the intercropping Bt cotton with regular crops. The pest-resistance USP of Bt comes from a gene introduced into the seed: Its impact on the soil, or on surrounding crops, is yet to be studied in Punjab. But with even regular cotton blacklisted as an intercrop, the fallout of growing fruits with Bt cotton can only be guessed at.
Or, just wait for a couple of years. That's how long it will take for farmer Raghbeer Singh's kinnow orchard to bear fruit. In the meantime, he has sown Bt, like many farmers in this belt who took to kinnow after cotton failed repeatedly.
"Abohar has some of the largest kinnow orchards, and they’re doing very well. So a couple of years ago I decided to develop an orchard on five acres of my 30-acres of land as well," says Raghbeer Singh, a farmer.
Kinnow-harvesting is largely a contracted business in this belt, with bids starting from Rs 50,000 and going upto Rs 2 lakh, depending on the bounty.
"I am not particularly keen on cotton, but since it'll be another two-three years before the orchard bears fruit, I sowed Bt too this year," says Singh.
But wasn't he aware that it wasn't advisable to plant the highly toxic Bt cotton in close proximity with regular crops? Singh confesses ignorance. "But other farmers in the area have also intercropped Bt with kinnow," he defends his decision. "No one, not even the state department of agriculture, has told us if Bt cotton will affect other crops."
The names change, but similar cases abound in Abohar.
The farmer's ignorance about the toxicity of Bt crops is reflected in the higher echelons of the state bureaucracy. "I am not sure whether Bt deserves a special category, but I do know we do not advise intercropping cotton with anything else, because the pesticide load on cotton is far higher than on any other crop." says Punjab's director of Agriculture B S Sidhu. "The pesticides which leach onto the soil surface can travel to the root system of the other crop."