The Government of India had issued a notification on 23 August, 2007, which came into effect on 11 September, 2007, withdrawing all existing regulatory oversight over the import of GE foods. This development allows the import of GE foods without the importing agencies having to take any permission from regulatory agencies, as has been the case so far. The new notification exempts importing agencies from even informing the government.
Gene Campaign has filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court challenging the notification issued by the government. Gene Campaign had appealed to the Court to strike down the notification since it is "unconstitutional, being violative of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution". Gene Campaign had further requested the Court to strike down the new provisions since these give uncanalised power to the government; which power is likely to be abused and is therefore violative of Article 14 of the Constitution.
The Supreme Court of India has heard the matter on 19 November and issued a notice to the Government of India on the petition. The Court issued a further notice on Gene Campaign's application that a stay be granted on the notification till the issue is finally decided. This means that the government has been put on alert that the Supreme Court is now watching the deregulation of GM foods.
Until now, in view of the known health risks that are associated with GE foods, the government guidelines have required that import of GE foods can only take place with the express permission of the apex regulatory body in India, the GEAC ( Genetic Engineering Approval Committee), Further, any handling of GM foods was to be done only after these were labeled as such.
The regulatory oversight that existed prior to the government's new notification was necessary and appropriate since it had allowed India to monitor the entry of food products produced by a new technology that is known to produce toxic and allergic compounds. The Indian regulations which made it necessary for permission to be taken from national agencies, allowed government to monitor the entry of GM products into the country. These regulations had also allowed India to maintain vigil that food products rejected by other countries in Europe, Africa and Middle East are not in fact being dumped on us.
The arbitrary withdrawal of the regulatory oversight without any scientific reason and without any consultation with a range of stakeholders that are engaged with GE technology and policies associated with it, is a dangerous development. It will benefit the producers and exporters of GM foods, like the US and pose health dangers to the Indian population.
Such a move is inexplicable, especially at a time when scientific evidence is mounting from laboratory tests in various parts of the world, that genetically engineered foods can in fact cause serious damage to health. Confronted with this scientific data, we need to upgrade our food testing systems and make them more stringent and comprehensive, not dismantle them, as the government is doing. It is incomprehensible that instead of strengthening our systems to ensure that no foods reach the market that have the potential to damage health, the government has decided to withdraw all opportunities to test and regulate such novel and controversial foods.
Not only is it dangerous to make the system lax from the health point of view, it is a matter of considerable concern that unfettered access to unknown foodstuffs is being allowed in the absence of a legal regime for liability and redress. India has still not introduced a law on liability for this sector, even though it is required to do so by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. This means there is no law in the country that can fix responsibility and claim compensation if something should go wrong with the environment or with animal and human health, from the cultivation and consumption of genetically engineered crops and foods.
The new notification of the Ministry of Environment and Forests will in effect provide unrestricted entry to untested foods of dubious origins, especially since the imported GM food does not have to be labeled. This denies consumers the right to exercise free choice in the matter of the food they wish to eat. This unfortunate move is therefore in violation of the Consumer Protection Act of India that grants consumers the right of informed choice.
The government's notification also goes against India's long standing commitment to mandatory labeling of GE foods, a position the Indian delegation has consistently maintained in international negotiations, particularly at the WHO-FAO led Codex Committee on Food Labeling.