Plugging the leak: On the GM rice controversy

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What is the news?

Since June, the export of about 500 tonnes of rice from India has triggered an uproar in several European countries on the grounds that it was genetically modified (GM) rice.

This emerged during a check by the European Commission’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed that was testing rice flour by the French company Westhove.

What is the GM Rice controversy?

In June, France issued a notification for unauthorised GM rice flour, identifying India as the point of origin, and alerting Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S. as the possible destination of products made with the flour.

So in August, the American food products company Mars, fearing GM contamination, announced that it was recalling four of its product lines of ‘Crispy M&M’.

GM-free rice that is tagged as ‘organic rice’ is among India’s high-value exports amounting to 18 million tonnes worth ₹63,000 crore annually, and reach more than 75 countries.
What is the source of contamination?

India does not permit the commercial cultivation of GM rice, but research groups are testing varieties of such rice in trial plots. So the suspicion is that rice from some of these test-plots may have “leaked” into the exported product.

Commerce Ministry has denied this possibility alleging that the contamination may have happened in Europe “to cut costs” and that the case was a futile conspiracy to malign the image of India as a reliable food security provider.

However, India has indicated that it will commission an investigation involving its scientific bodies.

How likely is that contamination might have occurred in India?

If past events are looked at then a possibility does arise wherein the contamination might have happened in India.

For instance: Bt-cotton was widely prevalent in farmer fields before being cleared. Though they have not been cleared, Bt-brinjal and herbicide-tolerant cotton varieties too have been detected in farmer fields.

Though the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee is the apex regulator of GM crops, it is mandated that trials of GM crops obtain permission from States. State agriculture universities having close connections with farmers, are continuously testing new varieties of crops employing all kinds of scientific experiments.

Keeping in mind the challenges of ensuring that trial plots are strictly segregated from farms, there is a possibility that seeds may transfer within plots.

What steps must India take?

Because many Indian farmers are dependent on European imports, the Centre must take steps to reassure importers that India’s produce is compliant with trade demands.

India must also move to ensure that research into all approaches — GM or non GM — should not become a casualty in this matter of export-quality compliance.

Source: This post is based on the article “Plugging the leak: On the GM rice controversy” published in The Hindu on 21st Oct 2021.

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