Friday, June 21, 2013


Are genetically modified foods (GMO) absolutely safe? Is it necessary to let the consumers know that the product he is buying in the market contains GMO? If yes at what levels? Can the labeling policy be flexible enough to allow the industry the leeway to declare or not regarding presence GMO in the products marketed by them? These are inconvenient but pertinent questions on which international community must arrive at a consensus, sooner or later. Only harmonized standards can be the basis for free trade among countries having different standards and protocols. What is disturbing however is the implied stance of WTO that GMO must be accepted by all member countries but labeling provisions can be flexible with each country free to insist on mandatory labeling. Why the world body is taking this stand can be understood in the light of situation prevailing in the US considered the "champion of champions" of GMO, This country has long ago abdicated its national responsibility to protect its citizens from harmful foods long ago, leaving the same in the hands of the multinational GMO giants whose clout and muscle power in controlling policies in that country are well known. Here is a commentary on the role of WTO in toeing the despicable GMO policy of the US and insisting other member countries to follow the same! 

Russia is gradually starting to fulfill its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). One of these obligations is a more lenient attitude towards products that contain genetically modified organisms (GMO). In line with WTO regulations, it will soon be possible to import GMO seeds into the country. This will enable producers to sell and label the resulting genetically modified products as any other product – that is, marking the food as containing genetically modified organisms will be made optional. Environmentalists are in an uproar, repeatedly taking to the streets with anti-GMO rallies in late May to get their voices heard. Labeling policy often appears simple and straightforward. However, the policy is complex, particularly for process attributes (those that relate to how a product was produced rather than its final use characteristics). In choosing GMO labeling policy, a government must address the long series of questions shown in table 1. This list can serve as a useful framework for comparing policies. Broadly speaking, the labeling choices being made by countries fall into two broad camps. One camp, including the European Union, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, among others, is pursuing mandatory labeling programs for GM food products, although in some cases voluntary labeling is retained for non-GM products. The other camp, which includes the United States (US), has voluntary labeling as its main strategy, with labeling being required if important end characteristics of the product, such as its allergenic potential or nutritional content, are changed. Genetically modified organism labeling is a prime example of a quick moving policy area where individual countries are not willing to take the time necessary for development of international consensus on the best approaches. The strategy is to regulate now and worry about coordination or harmonization later. The recent record of discord and gridlock in the relevant Codex Alimentarius committees reinforces the "everyone for themselves" approach. An example of the developing differences in policy, even within the mandatory labeling camp, can be seen in provisions on when labeling requirements are triggered. The European Commission is proposing that mandatory labeling be triggered if more than 1% of an ingredient in a product is GM. Japan is proposing to require labeling only for selected products and for those products, only for important ingredients. Legislation has been introduced in the current session of Congress in the US House of Representatives (Kucinich Bill, H.R. 3377) and Senate (Boxer Bill, S. 2080) to require mandatory GMO labeling in the United States. The Kucinich Bill is more detailed and specifies a self-certification approach to labeling a product's GMO status. While it is unlikely either bill will pass in this session of Congress, they suggest the mix of policy choices being thought about by some US legislators. In early May, the US Food and Drug Administration reconfirmed its policy of voluntary labeling for GMO products, when they are not significantly altered, and for non-GMO products. Voluntary labeling will be actively supported through issuance on labeling guidelines and provision of certification and reference testing services by the US Department of Agriculture.

India has done well to resist the WTO "guideline" on GMO and it is one of the few countries where GM foods are not allowed to be cultivated, at least officially. The story of GM Brinjal which was played out in India a couple of years back must still be fresh in the minds of Indian citizens and maintaining this stand is good for the country till there is absolute consensus regarding the safety of GM foods. Recent accidental finding of a GM wheat in the fields of some farmers in the US raises fresh concern about the environmental risks involved in giving a free run to GM crops in countries where most farmers do subsistence cultivation based on traditional seed raising and conventional technologies. If WTO is going to serve the interests of the American government and the American monopolistic industry giants as being perceived by many third world countries, it is time for this organization to close its shop once for all!   

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