New Delhi: The battle over genetically modified brinjal may resume shortly as an environment ministry agency readies its ammunition against arguments that the vegetable, the introduction of which has been halted by a government moratorium, threatens biodiversity and is unsafe for human consumption.
The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) will be going up against environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who was responsible for the decision to suspend cultivation of Bt brinjal after the panel had approved it. GEAC, a body of experts created by the government to approve genetically modified (GM) crops, is preparing to question much of the literature cited by Ramesh in his decision to impose the moratorium.
At its meeting last month, the body comprising biotechnologists from several universities and government laboratories decided to compile all reports cited by Ramesh and prepare a riposte in two months, said two people who were at the meeting.
“There are no new issues raised by the minister. All the points made were pretty much tackled by committees constituted by GEAC and made available publicly,” said one of the participants cited above. “So, we’re planning to recompile them and separate science from fiction.”
Ramesh didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Prior to approving Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation, GEAC had commissioned two expert panels in 2007 and 2008 to address concerns raised by activists that the genetically transformed brinjal was an environmental and health threat.
On 2 February, 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 GM crops in India by GEAC.
Key literature cited by Ramesh in his decision included a critique of the GEAC panel reports by Giles Seralini, a French scientist with Criigen, an anti-GM lobby, and Pushpa Bhargava, former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, and a vocal critic of the existing GM technology approval process. He also highlighted concerns raised by M.S. Swaminathan, a noted agriculture scientist.
Ramesh had asked GEAC to engage with scientists and civil society groups to draw up fresh protocol for additional tests. “The moratorium will continue for as long as it is needed to establish public trust and confidence,” he had said in February.
Ramesh’s decision had irked science and technology minister Prithviraj Chavan and agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, and moved Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to call a meeting in February to work out a compromise. After the meeting, Singh in a press statement only directed that all outstanding issues regarding Bt brinjal be resolved soon, without setting a deadline.
As reported by Mint on 26 February, GEAC may propose an extended rat-feeding study test, where the rodents are fed genetically modified proteins for 180 days, as opposed to the prevalent 90 days, to test for toxicity.
The brinjal in question, which contains a gene artificially introduced into its genome from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, has been developed by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, University of Dharwad, under a free licence from Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. Ltd (Mahyco). Among other firms, Monsanto Co., which owns a 26% stake in Mahyco, also has technologies for introducing the Bt gene in other food crops, including rice, maize and wheat.
India allowed commercial cultivation of Bt cotton in 2001.
The use of Bt cotton in India has increased yield from 308kg per hectare in 2001 to 508kg per hectare in 2006, says Cotton Corp. of India Ltd, which helps in selling the commodity.