India's Anti-Genetically Modified Foods Law Is Not Working

It is against the law to make or sell genetically-modified crops in India without government approval, but a new sampling study shows way too much in the way of GM foods are making it into the country.

bt Cotton. Photo: Abhishek Srivastava, CC

A new study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) shows precisely how badly the government is doing in keeping GM foods out. The study suggests a combination of lax enforcement of regulations and outright fraud by suppliers is creating the problem.

In the study, CSE research members randomly sampled a total of 65 food samples gathered from Gujarat, Punjab and the Delhi-NCR region. Of those 65 items, 21 of them -- 32% -- were found when tested to be positive for the presence of genetically-modified crops.

Of those tested, for the 30 samples that came from manufacturing facilities in India, only 5 -- 17% -- came out as GM positive. Of the 35 samples imported from out of the country, 16 -- a full 46% -- came out positive for the presence of genetically-modified crops. Those 16 were items manufactured in Canada, the UAE, the United States, Thailand, and the Netherlands.

The testing also included checking samples of locally-made cottonseed oil. Acording to CSE Deputy Director General Indu Bhushan, "Domestically manufactued cottonseed oil samples tested GM positive, but no GM positive packaged oil sample mentioned GM ingredients on the label." India does allow production of bt cotton under local laws, but it still requires approval to provide such products and requires proper labeling.

Despite the high percentage of products which showed genetically modified foods, acording to Sunita Narain, CSE's Director General, "Most GM foods in the study did not disclose GM on their labels and 15 percent made false claims saying they were GM-free". It was especially concerning that two out of the eight infant food samples from this study turned out to be GM positive yet had nothing on the labels disclosing that. The two GM-positive infant formula suppliers were from the Netherlands and the United States.

All these improperly-marked GM foods are in violation of Section 22 of India's Food Safety and Standards Act. That law says GM food items are not allowed to be produced, imported or sold in India unless explicitly approved under the act. According to CSE, government enforcement is very poor regarding this law, and sampling like what CSE did in this case is rare.

When GM crops make their way into the food supply, they do more than just slip a potentially-hazardous food into customers' stomachs. In the case of bt type foods, the GM crops include pesticide-producing genetic variants within the seed. For those GM crops instead engineered to resist the presence of specific herbicides -- like Monsanto's glyphosate-laced Roundup -- the final GM food often includes significant amounts of the toxic herbicides in the final GM crops. That is the situation noted in many scientific studies in Europe and the United States, where glyphosate has been allowed for some time. Glyphosate and GM crops are also currently 'on trial' in legal proceedings in the San Francisco, California, area, where a school groundskeeper who contracted non-Hodgkin lymphoma is suing Monsanto for making him critically ill without hope of recovery.