New Delhi: India’s environment minister Jairam Ramesh announced an “indefinite moratorium” on the release of transgenic brinjal, effectively ruling out the entry of other genetically modified food crops that could have come in through the door opened by Bt brinjal.
By doing so, Ramesh also raised questions about the regulatory process surrounding approvals for genetically modified (GM) crops in India. The genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC), a body of experts created by the government to approve GM crops, had cleared Bt Brinjal for commercial cultivation.
Although India is the world’s second largest producer of brinjals (or eggplant), the real impact of Bt brinjal would have been not on commercial production of the vegetable or on other non-transgenic varieties of it, but in terms of opening a regulatory window for other GM crops—maybe rice or wheat, staples in the diet of most Indians.
On Tuesday, Ramesh asked GEAC to engage with scientists and civil society groups to draw up fresh protocols for additional tests. “...Under no circumstances should there be any hurry or rush. The moratorium will continue for as long as it is needed to establish public trust and confidence.”
Cautious approach: Environment minister Jairam Ramesh. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
The brinjal in question, which contains a gene, artificially introduced into its genome, mainly from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, has been developed by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, University of Dharwad, under a free licence from the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. Ltd (Mahyco). Among other companies, Monsanto Inc., which owns a 26% stake in Mahyco, also has technologies for introducing the Bt gene in other food crops including rice, maize and wheat.
Independent scientists, and experts involved with the approval process, seem unhappy with the decision. “If there were more tests needed, you should have got them prescribed 10 years ago, when Bt brinjal first came for an approval,” said a GEAC official, who didn’t want to be identified. “ No technology can take root if ad hoc tests are prescribed randomly.”
G. Padmanabhan, a former director at the Indian Institute of Science and an expert recommended by Ramesh for designing new tests, said: “ I am disappointed and surprised at this decision. Open-ended moratorium has no meaning. I had thought he would say one or two years of study. I don’t buy the safety concern argument. They say do chronic feeding (to rats) but how long can this feeding last? For a lifetime? What would be the control for such studies? All the existing protocols have been followed (by GEAC). I have read the report and I think they have analysed all comments very well...”
Mahyco said in a statement that it “respects the decision of the environment minister on insect-protected Bt brinjal.” While promising to follow the prescribed rules, the statement added that the company “is confident that sound science based on evidence obtained over nine years of rigorous testing will prevail and the country’s farmers, consumers and farm labour and the environment will benefit from agriculture biotechnology”.
DuPont India, which is planning preliminary trials of its own forms of transgenic rice, using the Bt gene, said the minister’s decision wouldn’t affect their long-term plans. “It would be disappointing, but over time biotechnology and that includes transgenic technology, is inevitable to ensuring a food-secure country. So our plans are on track,” said Balvinder Kalsi, president, DuPont India, a few hours before Ramesh’s press briefing. He couldn’t be reached for comment after Ramesh’s conference.
Acknowledging stiff opposition from state governments, lack of consensus in the scientific community and negative public sentiment, largely drummed up by farmer- and activist groups, Ramesh said: “It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary, principle-based approach and impose a moratorium... till such time independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and environment, including the rich genetic wealth existing in brinjal in our country.” India, has 4,000 genetic varieties of brinjal. Ramesh added that there is no over riding food security argument involved in the case of brinjal.
Ramesh had earlier, on 16 October, over ruled GEAC’s decision and said he would decide on Bt brinjal only after more consultations with farmers, scientists and citizens at the state level. He then embarked on a roadshow through January and early February across Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Bhubaneswar, Nagpur, Chandigarh, Hyderabad and Bangalore. Almost 8,000 people attended these consultations. The ministry had written to 50 Indian and foreign scientists for comments and three rounds of discussions were held between Ramesh and eminent scientist M.S. Swaminathan. The raucous, at times combative, consultations saw several states express their apprehensions on the release of Bt brinjal. Uttarakhand chief minister Ramesh Pokhriyal said in a statement on Monday that GM crops would be “prohibited” in the state.
Meanwhile, differences had surfaced between Union ministers over who clears Bt brinjal. Agriculture minister Sharad Pawar and science minister Prithvi Raj Chavan publicly stated that GEAC had the final word on GM crops. Ramesh disagreed.
“Pawar has not said anything to me,” said Ramesh on Tuesday.
Though several scientists say that GM brinjal poses no danger to the environment, animals and humans, others stress that not enough tests have been done to validate it. Also, environment activists add, Bt brinjal is a threat to plant biodiversity.
Currently, Bt cotton is the only genetically modified crop allowed for commercial cultivation. Ramesh reiterated that these two are very different as brinjal is edible.
“Tests and trials for food products must be more stringent than drugs but this has not been the case for Bt brinjal,” he said.
The use of Bt cotton in India has increased yield from 308kg per ha in 2001 to 508kg per ha in 2006, according to Cotton Corp. of India Ltd, a state-owned company that helps in marketing of the commodity.
Seema Singh in Bangalore contributed to this story.