Bangladesh Food Safety Authority (BFSA) is planning on making declaration of genetically-modified (GM) crop in food products mandatory, said its chairman yesterday.
A genetically modified organism, or GMO, is an organism that has had its DNA altered or modified in some way through genetic engineering. In most cases, GMOs have been altered with DNA from another organism, be it a bacterium, plant, virus or animal; these organisms are sometimes referred to as "transgenic" organisms.
There is a huge distrust amongst the public about the safety of GMO crops.
"Every product, be it packaged, processed or imported, must have a declaration stating whether this is GM or not. We will issue a directive in this regard soon," said BFSA Chairman (in charge) Manbub Kabir.
He was addressing a workshop on requirements for compliance and consumer awareness regarding GM food, jointly organised by the BFSA and South Asia Biosafety Programme (SABP) at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies in Dhaka.
Kabir made the disclosure after some discussants pointed out that Bt brinjal is being marketed with no mention in labels or declarations that the popular vegetable is a biotech crop, depriving customers from making preference-based purchases.
The government released Bt brinjal, which is infused with pest-resistant genes, for cultivation in 2013 as part of its fight against the fruit and shoot borer, a moth species causing largescale devastation and losses for farmers. The seeds were later provided to farmers.
The law makes it mandatory for GM food labels to declare their identities but it was being flouted at the marketing stage, said BFSA Member Monzur Morshed Ahmed.
"Labelling requirements established by regulations are currently being sidestepped," he said, adding that consumers should be ensured an enabling environment allowing them to pick out what they want and do not.
Products are untraceable once released into the supply chain, he said, suggesting for inter-agency coordination and enforcement of regulations to strengthen efforts.
Ahmed also stressed on enhancing laboratory capacities in Bangladesh to enhance toxicity and allergenicity assessments.
Bangladesh does not have the capacity to verify any given data or information through scientific analysis.
In the decision-making processes, regulators rely solely on information provided by the developer or applicant, he said, while stressing on holding appropriate public consultations and taking public opinion into consideration.
"Necessity of commercial release must be established and justified," Ahmed added.
BFSA Chairman Kabir cited that the Bt brinjal, which is now being cultivated, is coming to the market but in no properly labelled package.
"In my opinion, we should let GM foods be left open to customer choice. There should be a declaration on whether the product is a GM food or not. We are yet to introduce this. This is a major bottleneck for us. But we will definitely overcome this."
He went on to point out that food such as lentil and oilseed are being brought in from abroad, Kabir said no importer made any declaration on whether it was GM or not.
"We are yet to ensure that the food arriving at the port be declared either a GMO or non-GMO. This is a major shortcoming."
Kabir said his office would request the customs authority to ensure this declaration.
Tension and confusion still exist regarding transgenic foods. "We must cross the border," he added.
"This is something new. That is why have to be careful," said Vibha Ahuja, chief general manager of Biotech Consortium India.
No adverse effect has been seen for the GM foods that have been approved since 1996.
To ensure safety of biotech food, implementation of biosafety procedures is a must, said SABP Country Manager Aparna Islam.
Md Zakir Hossain Howlader, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Dhaka, emphasised on labelling and developing a surveillance system for GM crops.
The country should develop its capacity to assess the nutritional quality and other aspects of biotech crops, said RH Sarker, chairman of the Department of Botany at the University of Dhaka.
Andrew F Roberts, deputy executive director of ILSI Research Foundation, also spoke among others.