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India allows import of key agricultural commodities only if they are GMO-free

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The Indian Food Safety Authority (FSSAI) has stipulated that importers of 24 important agricultural raw materials must prove that they are GMO-free. The regulation was to come into force at the turn of the year; however, this was postponed by two months at short notice. Behind the scenes, the U.S. in particular is pushing to overturn the ban.

The FSSAI had published the original order on August 21, 2020. It said each shipment should be accompanied by a GMO-free certificate to be issued by "the competent national authority of the exporting country." The annex listed 24 commodities, including wheat, potatoes, corn, soybeans, canola, sugar beets, alfalfa, rice and linseed. In an interview in India's Financial Express, FSSAI Executive Director Pawan Kumar Agarwal said that there is currently a "regulatory vacuum" in India because the approval and labeling of genetically modified foods is not regulated.

Now, it is not as if there have been no regulations on the import of GM foods in India so far. The authority for this, as the Financial Express explained, lay with the GEAC agency in the Ministry of Environment. However, in August 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that it was the FSSAI's responsibility to assess the health risks of GM foods and approve them. The Court instructed the Food Authority to submit relevant legislative proposals to Parliament. This is what his agency is working on and it will propose mandatory labeling for genetically modified foods, Agarwal said in the interview. Until then, the FSSAI's regulation "is to ensure that only non-GM food crops are imported into India until the GM food regulations are finalized."

To implement these requirements, however, the FSSAI must conduct extensive testing, enlist the help of alert citizens, and respond to complaints related to suspected GM contamination, Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture cautioned in The Hindu newspaper. "It is noteworthy that the FSSAI has taken this decision despite pressure from powerful lobby groups," the newspaper quoted agriculture expert Devinder Sharma as saying. This was in reference to the campaign by an Indian-American business association that had urged the government to allow five percent transgenic ingredients in agricultural commodities, The Hindu explained.

The newspaper also reported that the U.S., Brazil, Australia and several other countries had complained to the World Trade Organization (WTO). It said the Indian rule would place an "undue burden" on exporting countries and give the impression that genetically modified foods are less safe than conventional ones. The FSSAI will review all comments received and find a mutually acceptable solution through bilateral channels, The Hindu quoted an Indian diplomat as saying. Even before that, the FSSAI had clarified that the order did not apply to processed food, but only to raw food materials. Animal feed was not included in the order in the first place. However, India had not explained how it determined for which use an agricultural import was intended, The Hindu quoted from the U.S. complaint.

Domestically, the FSSAI is getting pressure to tighten the regulations even more. Swadeshi Jagran Manch, an influential apron organization of the ruling Hindu BJP party, wrote to FSSAI urging it to require a GM-free certificate for processed food imports as well. It also said FSSAI should revoke import permits still issued by GEAC for oil made from genetically modified canola and soybean. [lf]
 

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