Earlier this week, the Union ministry of consumer affairs, food and public distribution significantly ruled that come January, packaged food that uses genetically modified (GM) ingredients will have to be explicitly labelled so to be sold in Indian retail outlets.
For the domestic food industry, this won’t amount to much as the only genetically modified plant grown in Indian soil is cotton. Only a minor fraction of edible oil is sourced and domestically consumed in India from this seed, and on its own, it’s unlikely that the government notification will cause much consternation at most retail outlets across the country. The problem lies elsewhere.
Given that a scientific understanding of GM food products is yet to percolate among most of India’s buying class— as is evidenced from popular belief that Bt food products are “poisonous” or “toxic” —allowing a label, that is essentially meaningless, only amounts to a defiling of the purpose of labelling packaged food. There is nothing wrong in informing consumers about the content of what they consume: the issue is the campaign that has been waged against GM foods will ensure that labelling will be misconstrued as a warning.
Genetically modified soybean plants. Photo: Bloomberg
The leading argument for labelling is that it helps consumers make an informed choice. Labels on food packets, as embodied in the country’s Food Safety and Regulation Acts, are meant to inform consumers about the kinds of chemical preservatives as well as unobvious food ingredients. The pesticidal Bt gene in cotton oil is neither a preservative nor an ingredient, just as food labels don’t detail the chemical make-up of the pesticides used even if sourced naturally.
The debate around allowing genetically modified food in India is far more complex and goes much beyond the issue of toxicity. More significantly, there are questions if this could have an unforeseen impact on India’s biodiversity. There are also genuine concerns of whether GM seeds are today affordable for a large segment of Indian farmers. Unfortunately, these technical questions have been embroiled in politics. Reducing this debate to a single label belies the nuances of this debate that also evokes political interest.
Should consumers be informed about the presence of GM material in the food they consume? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org