India says No to GM eggplant

Environment minister says independent tests are needed to establish safety

A genetically modified brinjal (eggplant) recently got the thumbs down in India. After a contentious national debate, India�s environmental minister Jairam Ramesh announced on February 10 that a six-month moratorium will be placed on commercial plantings of Bt brinjal in order to conduct independent tests assessing its safety to human health and the environment.

�Precautionary principle-based approach�

Ramesh issued a statement saying, �It is my duty to adopt a cautious precautionary principle based approach and impose a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal 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.�

Bt brinjal was developed by Mahyco, an Indian seed company partly owned by US biotech giant Monsanto, and is genetically manipulated to contain a built-in pesticide, the bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacterium.

India�s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had approved Bt brinjal for commercial production in October 2009. The final decision was left to Ramesh, who organized a series of public meetings to gauge public opinion.

13 states opposed

There was strong opposition to Bt brinjal from scientists, politicians, consumer groups, farmer organizations, organic farmer groups, and spiritual leaders. Thirteen Indian states, including Uttarakhand, West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Mizoram, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, and Rajasthan, opposed introduction of Bt brinjal. Several of these states account for 75% of India�s brinjal production.

India produces brinjal on about 600,000 hectares, making it the world�s second leading producer after China.

Opposition to Bt brinjal was based on threats to human health and the environment. Opponents claimed Bt brinjal posed a threat to the genetic diversity of brinjal. Canadian scientist Shiv Chopra, who was instrumental in banning Monsanto's GM bovine growth hormone rBGH in Canada, said �Bt is toxic and there are serious questions being raised on the long term implications of genetically modified food products.�

Distrust of Monsanto

Another deciding factor was an unwanted incursion into India by Monsanto. �Very serious fears have been raised in many quarters on the possibility of Monsanto controlling our food chain if (Bt brinjal) is approved,� Ramesh said. Indian activists hailed the decision as a �victory over American imperialism.�

Concerns were also raised about GEAC�s initial approval of Bt brinjal, which was based on test data supplied by Mayhco and Monsanto. A leading molecular biologist P.M. Bhargava said there was �absolutely no scientific basis� for GEAC�s approval. Bhargava also said that professor R. Arjula Reddy, chairman of the GEAC�s second expert committee, confided to him that he was under �tremendous pressure� to approve the crop.

Bhargava has called for a 5- to 8-year moratorium on all GM crops in India until scientific research can demonstrate their safety. He has also called for a re-evaluation of Bt cotton, the only GM crop approved for production in India.

Praise for decision

The moratorium received widespread praise. Influential agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan described it as �a wise and appropriate decision.� Vandana Shiva of Navdanya and the Research Foundation for Science, Ecology and Technology, called the decision a �victory for scientists, farmers, ecologists and all those who called for caution.� Indian Catholic bishop Mathew Arackal welcomed the decision and called for the adoption of organic and sustainable farming practices in India.

(Sources: India Blooms News Service, Reuters, DNA India, Financial Express India, Associated Press, The Hindu, Business Week, Union of Catholic Asian News)