Since times immemorial humans have cultivated crops for food, they have been picky about beneficial traits for bumper breeding. This motive of humans in the 21st century is served by modern biotechnology and associated invitro fertilization process. Food that is grown through genetic alteration via use of biotechnology and laboratory techniques at the cellular level are called genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Food and feed containing GMOs or produced from GMOs are known as genetically modified (GM) food and feed.
With population burgeoning, climate change showing adverse impacts and intrusion of transnational companies in the domain of agriculture, there has been a hue and cry among marginal cultivators, environmentalists and health activists regarding the ill effects of GM food technology. Whether its United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), India, Africa or the Middle East Countries, there has been a considerable resistance and opposition to the introduction of GM foods in supermarkets and open culturable lands due to the risk it poses to environment and health of not only humans but also of flora and fauna and landscapes like soil and water.
Digressing a bit from the scope of this article, it’s quite significant to understand why there has been resistance all around the globe with regard to GM food. Firstly, create food totalitarianism that is only TNCs who have GM technology can manufacture seeds and food products thereby creating a monopoly through their patents and being price-makers in the economy. Secondly, GM crops require much more pesticides and water for cultivation which increase ecological footprint. Thirdly, the fear of unknown allergens and being carcinogenic. Fourthly, widespread cultivation of GM crops would reduce genetic variation among plants and create monoculture thereby reducing diversity in nature.
It is important to have a bird’s eye view of the GM food regulations around the globe to have a better picture of how GM food are dealt by jurisdictions all around the globe and international authorities vis-à-vis United Arab Emirates (UAE) regime regarding GM food.
- USA: US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) evaluates if genetically modified crops are safe to consume, and stated that food labels are not obliged to mention GM content unless there are changes to the properties of the food e.g. a potential allergen.
- European Union: European Union via Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003 of the European Parliament adopted labelling rules which require products to be labelled if an ingredient contains 0.9 per cent or more genetically engineered material so that the consumer can make an informed choice.
- Australia and New Zealand: Both the Oceanic countries adopted mandatory labelling rules in 2001 if there is more than 1 per cent presence of any GM content.
- India: Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) Regulations 2018 has issued guidelines for mandatory GM labelling if there is more than 1 per cent GM content in food. The Central Government though has set the threshold at 5 per cent of genetically modified content in the food product.
Korea: The country has a higher threshold for GM food
labelling i.e. above 3 per cent. It also has three categories viz.
- genetically modified
- partially modified
- possibly contain genetically modified
- Saudi Arabia: It requires labelling of information pertaining to genetic modification in different ink written in both English and Arabic and a triangle should be drawn.
The case of UAE is no different as there has been growing anxiety and cautiousness among the consumers and environment activists regarding the contents of food products. In 2011, the scientists at Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority conducted a study which revealed that GMO foods that were sold in the Emirates, has 16 out of 128 food samples tested containing GMO material, mostly soya or corn. Similarly, Greenpeace conducted a study of 35 items which were purchased in the UAE and Kuwait, and the results were astonishing as the majority of items were contaminated with genetically modified organisms (GMO). In UAE, 40 per cent of food is genetically modified yet without proper labelling laws here, consumers are unaware.
An overview of the food safety regime in UAE gives more in-depth understanding about the responsibility the food manufacturers would have to take for food safety:
- Federal Law On Food Safety: The law lays down the standards and regulations for maintaining the safety and quality of food to ensure the protection of public health and consumers. The law imposes strict penalties for companies endangering food safety across the UAE. In fact, no food could be imported for the first time without approval of Ministry of Climate Change and Environment. The Ministry through its National Food Safety Committee works to implement law on safety to ensure high standards of safety throughout food chain.
- National Food Accreditation and Registration System: As per the Ministerial Decree Number 239 of 2018, food whether imported or locally produced or modified, its composition must be registered before being marketed locally. The ingredients before being marketed need to be registered in the electronic system viz. ZAD.
- The National Rapid Alert System for Food: This was launched in 2017 to ensure effective implementation of response measures in case serious food risks are detected. The system has devised categories as either high, medium or low in case of risk.
- Local Entities Ensuring Food Safety: Abu Dhabi Agriculture and Food Safety Authority is the authority which authenticates food safety in the emirate of Abu Dhabi and certifies that the food is fit for human consumption. It conducts the vital research and studies on safe food practices and issues rules, regulations and standards on the food items that could be sold and fit for human consumption.
- Control of Imported Food: UAE is a signatory to the World Trade Organization Agreement on the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS). The agreement sets provisions on how governments can apply food safety and animal and plant health measures.
Besides above, UAE has National Strategy for Wellbeing 2031 which is in tandem with Vision 2021 and UAE Centennial 2071 and thus, line with it, the government is planning to introduce Federal Law to govern GMOs and its related products including food. Besides, UAE adopts positive labelling system to label GM products. To screen GM foods Dubai Central Laboratory has developed polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to test actual contents of food to conform to product description.
The law in UAE pertaining to GMO food and related products are mainly two regulations covering GMOs, the UAE.S GSO 2141:2011 “General Requirements for Genetically Modified Unprocessed Agricultural Products.” This technical regulation outlines general requirements for unprocessed agricultural products obtained through certain techniques of genetic modification and unprocessed agricultural products that contain genetically modified organism, if the GMO present is higher than one per cent. Secondly, the UAE.S GSO 2142:2011 “General Requirements for Genetically Modified Processed Agricultural Products.” This technical regulation covers general requirements for processed food and feeds obtained through certain techniques of genetic modification and processed food and feed that contain or produced from genetically modified organism if the GMO present is higher than one per cent of the ingredients. In addition, GSO 2371:2014 specifies the typical terms and definitions of genetically modified food.
The safety of GM products is also ensured via 8 safety guidelines formulated by the UAE government. The Dubai Government has delegated the authority to let importation of foodstuff as well as monitoring the labelling and testing of the products to Dubai Municipality (DM). Dubai Municipality liaises with the Emirates Authority for Standardization and Metrology (ESMA) in the context of adopted relevant standardization in the UAE. The labelling of the GM products must be done on the wrapper of the food product. The language which mentions the ingredients and other details should be in English and Arabic for ease of understanding of the consumer. If “GMO Free” status is claimed on a product label, the supplier must provide a GMO-free certificate from a competent authority which is empowered in the country of origin in case of imports.
Therefore, the implementation of new Federal Law on Biosafety of GM food has objectives to protect public health from the risks arising from genetically modified organisms or their products. It also covers protection of the environment in the development, manufacture, production, transfer or circulation of genetically modified organisms or their products.
This new federal law is, therefore, a thoughtful step on part of the government as with increasing consumer consciousness and environmental deterioration due to exploitation of natural processes through use of modern biotechnology, the new Federal Law is progressive in the sense that it would protect the human health and the environment as well as provide the food manufacturers clear guidelines with set of dos’ and don’ts as to how they should label their product and mark it with GM label so they don’t fall into controversial issues.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.