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U.S. food aid to India still under GM cloud

(Thursday, April 10, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Nature Biotechnology Vol 21 No 4. Date: April 2003, K.S. Jayaraman

New Delhi, India -- Controversy over whether India should import a shipment of food aid from the US that is suspected to be contaminated with genetically modified (GM) corn has become murkier.

A consignment of 1,000 tonnes of corn-soya blend from the US is lying in Kolkata port awaiting clearance from the Environment Ministry's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which regulates the large-scale introduction of GM drugs, plants, or food stuff. The shipment is the first of a 23,000-tonne food package that CARE-India and the Catholic Relief Services (CRS)--two American nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)--had proposed to import into India for distribution to school children under the 'midday meal' program.

Last November, the GEAC refused to clear the shipment as the two agencies failed to produce US government certification in writing that the consignment did not contain StarLink, a variety of GM corn that is approved as cattle feed in the US but not for consumption by humans. At that time, there were already reports of traces of StarLink corn slipping into US consignments to Japan, South Korea, and Australia. "We didn't want to take chances," the then GEAC chairman A.M. Gokhale says. "All we asked was a US government undertaking saying it was free of StarLink." As this was not forthcoming, GEAC refused permission for the import.

At its second meeting on March 6 to reconsider the issue, the GEAC stuck to its earlier decision disallowing the import. But the committee, which now has a new chairman, made a significant concession by allowing importers to produce a certificate from "any accredited laboratory (AAL)," not necessarily from the US government.

"This is the catch," says Ramesh Bhat, head of the Food & Drug Toxicology Research Center at the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad. "On one hand the government insists that local food samples should be tested for adulteration only in government laboratories. If this is the case, how can GEAC accept GM-free certificate for imported food from AAL?" Bhat says AAL certification would provide an "escape route" for the American NGOs to bring in the corn-soya blend through the "back door."

Indian NGOs allege that the US administration has been arm-twisting India into accepting the food aid. "Senator Christopher Bond was recently in India, trying to exert political pressure for lifting the ban," says Vandana Shiva, a well-known activist in New Delhi. Suman Sahai, a geneticist and convener of Gene Campaign, another NGO, says the US food aid "is nothing but a prelude to opening the doors for commercial dumping of GM foods by the US multinationals that are unable to find markets in Europe." CARE and CRS officials were not available for comment.

Meanwhile GEAC's new chairman, Sushma Choudhary, has made it clear that the government is not against GM foods per se. At an interministerial meeting called by Choudhary on February 26, GEAC decided to allow imports of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on a "case-by-case basis." What this means is that only approved varieties, such as Bt-cotton, will be allowed, says Vasantha Muthuswami, who represents the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) at GEAC. "Those GM products that are not yet evaluated in India or approved by the GEAC will not be allowed." Bhat says ICMR had reservations about the corn-soya blend mainly because StarLink is not approved for human food even in the country of its origin.

The new policy on GMO imports also states that a company exporting GM material should provide comprehensive information (e.g., the gene construct inserted into the transgenic) and answer all technical queries about biosafety. "The Indian government will not spend its money or resources in conducting studies to find the answers," says Bhat. "The rationale for this is that the onus of safety rests with the company, just as in the case of drugs." Bhat says once the basic information is available the decision to import or not will depend on the outcome of risk assessment analysis carried out by GEAC. Bhat admits that no risk analysis would be possible for GM material imported clandestinely. "I know prawn farmers in Andhra Pradesh have imported GM cyclops as prawn feed, but how can we detect these [GM Cyclops] if we do not know what genes have been [transferred]?"

As part of the GMO policy agreed on at the interministerial meeting, the government has given priority to building capacity and strengthening institutions for detecting GMOs and setting up an operational mechanism for risk assessment and post-approval monitoring. The health ministry has decided to establish GMO testing facilities in all ports. The ICMR has created a GM cell in its Delhi headquarters and is also putting in place a post-marketing surveillance system, while the Department of Biotechnology is creating four new facilities for developing technologies for GMO detection.

"Our facility at NIN will start functioning in a few weeks," says S. Vasanthi, who has just returned after training at RIKIL, the state institute for quality testing of agriculture products in the Netherlands. Other GMO testing facilities are coming up at the Center for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics in Hyderabad, the Industrial Toxicology Research Center in Lucknow, and the Central Food Technology Research Institute in Mysore.