Commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal may take a year

Commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal may take a year

New Delhi: Bt brinjal, or the country’s first genetically modified food crop, is unlikely to be available for commercial cultivation before late next year, and still requires mandatory clearances from three government ministries, say key officials involved with the regulatory process.

On Wednesday, the genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC), a biotechnology regulatory authority ruled that genetically modified, or 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, apart from environment minister Jairam Ramesh’s nod, commercial cultivation of the genetically modified vegetable will require approvals from the ministries of agriculture and health and family welfare.

Even if a GM crop is not an environmental threat, it had to prove itself better than its naturally produced counterpart to be allowed for commercial cultivation. “A genetically modified fish may be safe, but you have to prove it’s beneficial too. You can’t have a genetically modified crop just for the sake of it," said M.K. Bhan, secretary, department of biotechnology. “So stakeholders such as the ministry of agriculture and health, etc., have to clear it before it reaches the field."

Bhan is involved with the GEAC’s decision-making process.

Minister of state for agriculture K.V. Thomas emphasized that though the agriculture ministry would take a “scientific" view on the need for GM crops, Bt brinjal was unlikely to make an appearance on dining tables anytime soon. “We are not going to have a negative approach. Neither are we blindly objecting or supporting it. Our decision will be on the basis of advice from scientists," he said over the phone, adding that commercial cultivation of the vegetable is not “likely before another year".

Jairam Ramesh, minister of state in the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF), said since there were “strong" views both for and against genetically modified food crops, more consultation was required.

“I have studied the recommendations and have decided that a series of consultations with scientists, agricultural experts, farmers’ organizations, consumer groups and NGOs will be held in January and February 2010," he said.

Activists and farmers’ organizations have protested against approvals to genetically modified crops, largely on grounds of its allegedly toxic health effects. Several European countries have banned GM crops.

“Clearance of such a crop requires the authorities to practice extreme caution. Currently in India there is no labelling regime for genetically modified foods which will give consumers a choice to make a decision whether they want to consume genetically modified food or not. Till the time this is done regulators should not clear edible GM crops," said Sunita Narain, director, Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based environmental activist group.

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 cotton yield from 308kg per hectare in 2001 to 508kg per hectare in 2006, according to Cotton Corp. of India Ltd, a state-owned company that helps in the marketing of cotton.

Like Bt cotton, the transgenic brinjal contains a gene, artificially introduced into its genome, mainly from a soil bacterium called bacillus thuringienesis.

Research into Bt brinjal is part of a USAID programme called Agri-Biotechnology Support Programme (ABSP) under a private-public partnership where three Indian institutions—the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (Varanasi), the University of Agricultural Sciences (Dharwad) and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (Coimbatore)—are working with Monsanto and Mahyco.

Bt Brinjal has been under trial for the past nine years and was first sent to the GEAC for approval in 2004. It was cleared by a panel led by Delhi University vice-chancellor Deepak Pental, but a GEAC review committee was constituted in 2007 when civil society groups and NGOs raised doubts over health safety and environmental concerns.

Liz Mathew and Seema Singh in Bangalore contributed to this story.