The story so far: A French manufacturer of rice flour claimed it had found unauthorised genetically modified rice in a consignment of 500 tonnes of broken rice imported from India this June. Since the European Union does not permit any use of GM rice, manufacturers of confectionery items and baked goods which had used the rice flour were then forced to carry out a mass recall of products. After a complaint letter from farm and environmental groups earlier this week, Indian authorities said they were investigating the allegations, but added that any contamination was unlikely as India does not allow commercial cultivation of GM rice either.
What is GM rice?
GM foods are derived from plants whose genes are artificially modified, usually by inserting genetic material from another organism, in order to give it a new property, such as increased yield, tolerance to a herbicide, resistance to disease or drought, or to improve its nutritional value. Probably the best known variety of GM rice is golden rice, which involves the insertion of genes from a plant -- both daffodils and maize have been used -- and a soil bacterium to create a grain that is enriched with Vitamin A.
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India has approved commercial cultivation of only one GM crop, Bt cotton. No GM food crop has ever been approved for commercial cultivation in the country. However, confined field trials have been allowed for at least 20 GM crops. That includes varieties of GM rice which would have improved resistance to insects and diseases, as well as hybrid seed production and nutritional enhancements such as golden rice. Trials have been carried out by public universities and research institutions such as the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, as well as private firms such as Bayer Bioscience and Mahyco.
Was GM rice exported from India?
The Commerce Ministry has stated that as commercial cultivation of GM rice is banned in the country, “there is no question of export of GM rice from India”. It said the EU was not sure of the exact source of contaminant, added that contamination could have occurred during the processing of the rice flour in Europe, and alleged that “this could be a conspiracy to malign India’s image as a reliable supplier of quality rice to the world.”
Despite the outrage, it did initiate an investigation by its agricultural exports authority APEDA which identified a Maharashtra-based trader as the source of the rice consignment, which had been given a non-GMO certification by a testing agency just before shipping. It also demanded that the EU provide details of specific genetic markers in the consignment.
Farm and environmental activists allege that plants or seeds from the GM rice field trials could have contaminated non-GM crops, noting that illegal varieties of GM cotton and brinjal are already freely circulating among sections of Indian farmers.
This is not the first time such allegations have been made. In May 2012, the European Commission had issued a notification to the Commerce Ministry regarding an allegation of GM contamination of basmati rice from both Indian and Pakistani suppliers.
What are the implications for Indian farmers?
India is the world’s top rice exporter, earning ₹65,000 crore last year by selling 18 million tonnes of grain, about a quarter of which is premium basmati. Among the 75 countries which buy Indian rice, West Asian nations, the U.S. and the U.K. are the biggest importers of basmati, while the majority of non-basmati goes to African countries and neighbours Nepal and Bangladesh.
For Indian farmers, the nightmare scenario could be what happened in the U.S. in 2006, when trace amounts of a GM rice variety being tested by Bayer were found in shipments ready for exports. Trading partners such as Japan, Russia and the EU suspended rice imports from the U.S., hitting farmers hard and forcing Bayer to pay out $750 million in damages for their losses.
Under pressure from the rice export lobby at the time, India drafted policies to ban GM rice trials in the basmati belt. However, farmers from other parts of the country, especially those aiming for the nascent but growing organic rice export market, worry that their products could face contamination.
What lies ahead?
India’s top rice scientists seem to have moved away from conventional GM rice research for the time being. Last month saw the release of the first varieties of non-GM herbicide tolerant rice which can also be directly seeded, thus saving on water and labour costs. The IARI is also working to create drought-tolerant, salinity-tolerant rice strains through new gene editing technology -- which is yet to gain regulatory approval -- which allows for tweaking the rice plant’s own genes without introducing the genes of any other organism.
In the face of such new advances, scientists and farmers agree that the regulatory regime needs to be strengthened, for the sake of domestic as well as export consumers. Technology approvals must be streamlined and science-based decisions implemented. Rigorous monitoring is needed to ensure that safety protocols are followed strictly, and enforcement must be taken seriously to prevent the spread of illegal GM crops.