Last week, the Union government admitted in Parliament that genetically modified edible oil is being illegally imported in India, without the mandatory assessment of its safety for human consumption. It disclosed for the first time that between 2007 and 2015 it allowed at least four companies to import edible oil made from genetically-modified crops, in violation of India’s food safety law.

Despite food safety regulations putting the Union government in charge of regulating the safety of imported food, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has passed the buck on to the states to ensure that these oils do not reach consumers.

Union Health Minister JP Nadda told Parliament on December 29 that various companies have been importing genetically modified soyabean and canola oil for consumption in India since 2007 after receiving permission from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, which regulates genetically modified crops for their environmental impacts. The minister admitted, however, that these imports did not have permission from the Health Ministry’s Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, the apex body tasked to regulate food to ensure that it is safe for human consumption

Nadda was responding to a question raised by the leader of Congress in the Lok Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge.

Genetically modified crops, or GM crops as they are commonly known, are cultivated from seeds that are genetically altered to increase yields or tolerance to pests. Supporters say GM crops are essential to boost food production to meet the demands of the planet’s ever-expanding population. But in India and many other parts of the world, there is a debate about whether GM crops are safe for human consumption. Some scientists also fear that biodiversity will be threatened if genetic material from GM crops get mixed in with non-GM crops.

Many countries, including European Union nations, Australia and China, have strict regulations requiring GM foods to be clearly labelled so that consumers can make informed choices about whether to eat them.

Breaching the law had, in October, first published a report about how the Centre had allowed the illegal import of more than 15 million tonnes of genetically modified soyabean and canola oils for human consumption over the past five years. At that time, the food safety authority had claimed that it was unable to stop the illegal import of GM edible oils because it did not have the technology to detect GM content in these oils.

The import of GM food into India needs to be approved under two separate laws. While the environment ministry is required to assess the environmental impacts of such food under the Environment Protection Act of 1986, the Food Safety and Standards Authority is required to assess the food for their impact on health under the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006.

According to the Food Safety and Standards Act, no genetically modified food can be sold in India unless the government frames regulations to govern such food to ensure that it is safe for human consumption. The government has not finalised these regulations yet. Because of this, the import and sale of GM food continues to be banned in the country, the food safety authority had stated before the Supreme Court in August.

The importers of GM soyabean and canola oils in India include multinational GM seed companies such as Monsanto Holdings Private Limited and Bayer Bio Sciences Private Limited.

In Parliament, Nadda listed at least seven cases where the environment ministry alone gave permission for the import of GM oils between 2007 and 2015, with clearance from the Food Safety and Standards Authority being bypassed.

In response to Kharge’s question on actions taken by the government to stop the sale of GM foods illegally in India, the health minister washed his hands of the matter.

Nadda said in Parliament:

“Enforcement of the provisions of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 , Rules and Regulations made thereunder, primarily rests with the State/UT Governments... directions have been issued by Food Safety and Standards Authority of India to State/UT Governments from time to time for taking steps for implementation and enforcement of the FSS Act, Rules and Regulations made thereunder.”

But, under the food safety law, the Food Safety and Standards Authority and its officers posted at ports and other points of import are in charge of ensuring that no illegal consignments of food enter the country. In 2016, the apex food regulatory authority and the Union health ministry also did away with the need for specialised food safety experts to inspect imported food consignments at India’s ports, handing over the responsibility to unqualified customs authorities instead.

Corrections and clarifications: This article was earlier published under the headline, Centre admits in Parliament that it allowed import of GM edible oil in violation of food safety law”.