Nepal unbans import of genetically modified cropsThe move has sparked protest with scientists and lawyers questioning the government’s intention behind allowing controversial products into the country.
Nepal has struck down an eight-year-old ban on the import of a number of food items produced from genetically modified crops following lobbying by American soybean exporters and Nepali traders that the ban was hurting the poultry industry.
The move has sparked protests against allowing controversial GM products into the country, with scientists and lawyers questioning the government’s intention.
The Plant Quarantine and Pesticides Management Centre said it had given the green light to import canola, soybean and maize. Canola, a variety of rapeseed or mustard, belongs to a family generally known as genetically engineered food. Soybean and maize are the two main GM crops cultivated around the world.
Mahesh Chandra Acharya, a senior plant protection officer at the centre, an agency under the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development, defended the government decision, telling the Post that they approved importation under the condition that these products would not be consumed by humans directly.
Now Nepali edible oil companies can sell the oil after processing the genetically modified oilseeds. The byproduct or oil cakes should be used for livestock feed. Soybean and maize should be used to make animal fodder.
The decision comes amid heightened controversy, scientists and lawyers say.
In 2014, Nepal’s Supreme Court had ordered a complete ban on the import of genetically modified crops until the government drafts a comprehensive policy regarding their importation, use, cultivation and management.
"As GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are very new and the country knows little about their implication on human health and biological diversity, people at all levels should be made aware of both their positive and negative aspects," said Devendra Gauchan, a senior scientist, who worked on Nepal’s agricultural biodiversity policy research for a long time. “We have to do empirical research before allowing them to use them on a bigger and wider scale.”
A GM plant is one into which one or more genes have been artificially inserted instead of the plant acquiring them in natural conditions from cross-breeding or natural recombination.
“It’s a topic of ongoing debate worldwide. Some countries have adopted GM crops and some are sceptical about their adverse effects,” said Gauchan.
The European Union imposes stricter approval and labelling requirements for GM foods, demanding a risk assessment for all new GM foods and feeds before marketing, and compulsory labelling of GM foods.
“It’s the consumer's choice to use them or not,” said Gauchan. “Nepal can follow suit.”
He said, "Although the Seed Act forbids the use of GMO seeds in Nepal, we don’t have any law to restrict foodstuffs that are produced using genetically modified crops. It’s too early, without any study, to allow their imports, though we have been eating foods produced using genetically modified crops for years.”
Senior Plant Protection Officer Acharya too said GMO foodstuffs were rampant in the market due to a weak monitoring mechanism. “Our existing mechanism cannot trace them.”
Last August, the Agriculture Ministry sprang into action after receiving complaints that foodstuffs produced using genetically modified crops were flooding the market following a massive rise in the import of soybean.
“GMO products were rampant in the market. We then asked the importers to produce the certificates of origin of the products.”
As a result, on August 15, the Plant Quarantine and Pesticide Management Centre issued a circular to all importers to provide a non-GMO certificate while applying for an import permit.
There was strong pressure against the move from various lobby groups and Nepali traders.
On September 21, the Agriculture Ministry ruled through a minister-level decision to “officially issue permits” for canola, soybean and maize.
“These measures are temporary until further arrangements are made,” said Acharya.
According to Acharya, the Plant Quarantine and Pesticides Management Centre will issue import permits to traders against a recommendation by the Department of Livestock Services.
A major concern over GMOs is that they will cause reduced genetic diversity of plants and animals in the environment.
“We are all well aware of the risks associated with GM products,” said Bhaba Prasad Tripathi, a senior soil scientist who had served at the International Rice Research Institute, Philippines.
“It’s a risky affair,” said Tripathi. “The ban has been lifted in haste. It needs proper and empirical research. Even if the government has allowed the import of GM food to be used as animal fodder and not for direct human consumption, there is still debate worldwide on their impact on health because we drink animal milk and eat animal meat,” said Tripathi. “We have been using mustard and soybean edible oil widely.”
According to experts, GMO seeds can be used for growing crops only once, and cannot be reproduced, unlike regular seeds. This will make Nepal dependent on seeds produced by multinational companies, according to experts.
“It is assumed that genetically engineered modifications may affect the genetic diversity of a population through cross-breeding or uncontrolled growth; therefore, many researchers are investigating whether this is true and how it can be prevented,” said Gauchan.
“For this reason, Nepal had imposed a ban on the import of GM seeds despite strong lobbying.”
On September 13, 2012, the United States Embassy announced that USAID, Monsanto and the government of Nepal were forming a partnership to promote hybrid maize in Nepal.
The move became controversial and a group of activists formed a nationwide campaign called "Stop Monsanto in Nepal".
In January 2014, in response to a petition filed by advocate Arjun Aryal, the Supreme Court issued an interim order to the government to prohibit the import of GM seeds, including those supplied by the US-based chemical and agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto.
Aryal had filed the petition on December 29, 2013, arguing that GM seeds push out local seed varieties and affect biodiversity.
“The Supreme Court ordered the government to form a high-level committee to study whether GMO products were harmful or not to biodiversity and human health,” Aryal told the Post. “To my knowledge, no such committee has been formed.”
He said, “I am surprised by the government decision to allow the import of foodstuffs produced using genetically modified crops. It’s definitely not good as the court ruling still stands.”
Nepal’s poultry producers said the government was under compulsion to issue the permits.
Last year, there was a severe shortage of poultry feed in India, Nepal’s key source market. Nepali traders have been importing nearly 90 percent of their poultry feed from India.
“The shortage of poultry feed and oil cakes in India forced Nepali importers to turn to the US market,” said Rabin Puri, president of the Nepal Feed Industries Association. “As a result, soybean imports from the US market jumped significantly.”
Puri said the price of poultry feed nearly tripled to Rs160 per kg in the Indian market in 2020 from the normal Rs60 per kg.
Poultry feed in the new season still costs more than Rs85 per kg in India.
“Even India imported soybean from the US market although the import of GM crops is banned in India.”
The surge in imports of soybean from the US market surprised the government.
According to the US Soybean Export Council, Nepal bought almost $27 million worth of US soybean meal in 2020.
As a result, on August 15, the centre instructed all soybean meal importers to provide a non-GMO certificate while applying for an import permit—a requirement that was not feasible and that shut the door to US soybean meal exports, said the US Soybean Export Council in a statement.
“We decided to abruptly shut down imports, but Nepali traders had millions of rupees worth of soybean meal on order which they could lose,” said Acharya. “The government then decided not to prevent the importation of food and feed that had already been ordered. We stopped issuing permits for new orders.”
“On September 21, the government implemented a one-window system allowing the import of GMO products that are not consumed directly by humans," said Acharya.
There was strong lobbying from the US Soybean Export Council, it has admitted in a statement.
“Immediately after Nepal stopped issuing permits, our team sprang into action, inviting three key soybean meal importers from Nepal to attend as special guests,” the council said.
According to the council, Nepal's neighbour India was also in the final process of allowing imports of GMO soy meal for the first time in history—a landmark decision for food security.
“By having regional intelligence in both India and Nepal, the US Soybean Export Council played a critical role for the opening of one market and securing continuity of another,” the statement said.
The council said it collaborated and coordinated the efforts of Nepal's feed industry to increase awareness regarding implications for the trade stoppage and what it meant to their business. “At the onset, it was clear that outreach and education to Nepal's government on the role of GM soybean meal was required to help them understand its importance in the country's poultry sector.”
To that end, a pincer strategy was adopted and industry stakeholders formed two teams under the leadership of Rabin Puri, president of the Nepal Feed Industries Association.
The first team prepared a presentation and met with officials of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development to present the data and proven track record of environmental and human safety of GMOs, as well as the product's role in Nepal's food security, the council said.
The second team of industry leaders communicated their interests and the need for continued importation of US soybean to members of Nepal’s Parliament, including lawmaker Gagan Thapa, who had once chaired the parliamentary Agriculture and Water Resources Committee.
“After nearly a month's worth of deliberations and uncertainty, the strategy yielded a positive outcome. All concerned authorities were adequately convinced of the benefits and safety of imported GM soybean meal from the United States and the market reopened,” the council said.
The market for animal fodder in Nepal is huge. Animal fodder imports amounted to Rs22 billion in the last fiscal year that ended mid-July. Besides animal fodder, other materials that are used to make feed also enter the country on a massive scale.
Oil cake imports amounted to Rs14 billion and maize imports were valued at Rs16 billion in the last fiscal year. Similarly, the import of soybean amounted to Rs4.62 billion, according to the statistics of the Department of Customs.
In the last fiscal year, Nepal imported oil cakes and soybean worth Rs347 million and Rs3 billion respectively from the US.