New Delhi: Differences have surfaced between Union government ministers over who clears Bt brinjal, India’s first genetically modified food crop.

After food and agriculture minister Sharad Pawar told reporters on Wednesday that an expert committee, and not the Centre, had the final say over vetting the vegetable, environment minister Jairam Ramesh voiced dissent on Thursday.

Gauging response: Environment minister Jairam Ramesh interacts with an activist protesting against Bt brinjal in Ahmedabad. PTI

In a letter to Pawar, Ramesh spelt out that though the expert committee was a statutory body, the government had every right and “in fact a basic responsibility to take the final decision".

Last October, the genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC), a biotechnology regulatory authority, ruled that genetically modified (GM) brinjal was safe for commercial cultivation. This was after a GEAC subcommittee, constituted on the Supreme Court’s directive, reviewed the scientific data from two-year-long field trials in farmers’ fields.

However, Ramesh then said he couldn’t allow commercial cultivation without more consultations with stakeholders.

The minister is currently touring seven cities—Kolkata, Bhubaneswar, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Nagpur and Chandigarh—and holding public discussions with farmers, activists and scientists on their comfort with Bt brinjal.

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.

States too are apprehensive about introducing Bt brinjal in their fields. The Daily News and Analysis cited Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa as saying on Wednesday: “The state is the fifth largest producer of brinjal in the country. We are growing more than 40 varieties of brinjal. We will not allow anything that may put our farmers in a difficult spot."

Currently, Bt cotton is the only genetically modified crop allowed for commercial cultivation.

Its use was prompted by pests becoming increasingly resistant to traditional insecticides—in some cases, a pest that could have once been killed with a single dose of insecticide needed 21,000 doses.

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 the marketing of the commodity.

Like Bt cotton, transgenic brinjal contains a gene, artificially introduced into its genome, mainly from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis. Though several institutions have various versions of Bt brinjal, the one closest to commercialization is the hybrid variety developed by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, University of Dharwad, under a free licence from the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co. Ltd.

Pawar and Ramesh didn’t respond to calls immediately.