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NEW DELHI, Feb 9 2010 (IPS) - After India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh announced Tuesday a ban on the cultivation of Bt brinjal, the country’s first genetically modified (GM) food crop, food security experts and activists said this major farming country has been saved from a biodiversity disaster.
“This is a historic decision. The minister deserves to be congratulated, given that he was under enormous pressure to give approval for Bt brinjal, especially after the country’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) cleared it,” leading food security specialist Devinder Sharma told IPS.
Had Bt brinjal – more widely known as eggplant or aubergine – been cleared in India, it would have opened the floodgates to a technology that is regarded with huge suspicion around the world, Sharma said. “Countries like the Philippines and Bangladesh were waiting to see which way India would go on this.”
Sharma said Ramesh’s decision had several implications, starting with the credibility of the GEAC which had earlier approved the cultivation of genetically modified Bt cotton. Both Bt cotton and Bt brinjal carry a gene taken from a bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), that is toxic to pests and supposedly saves on pesticides.
The introduction of Bt brinjal has not been as smooth as that of Bt cotton and the public outcry that followed GEAC’s approval of Bt brinjal on Oct. 14, 2009 was so fierce that Ramesh was compelled to announce the holding of public hearings before final clearance.
Ramesh’s taking the issue to the public, after the GEAC approval, drew vocal condemnation from two of his colleagues, agriculture minister Sharad Pawar and minister for science and technology Prithviraj Chauhan. In the event, the verdict from the people was hugely negative.
“When the public sentiments have been negative, it is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary and principle-based approach,” Ramesh said.
“I will not impose a decision till such time as independent scientific studies establish the safety of the product from long-term view of human health and environment, including the rich genetic wealth existing in brinjal in our country,” Ramesh said. “My conscience is clear,” he added.
Opposition to Bt brinjal, one of India’s major vegetables and a native of this country, came not only from civil society groups but also the provincial governments of several states including Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.
Leaders from opposition-ruled states accused the Congress-party ruled central government of selling out to giant international food corporations, in this case the U.S.-based Monsanto Corp., which owns the patent on Bt brinjal and has large shares in Mahyco, the Indian company that markets the seeds in this country.
According to Sharma, who chairs the New Delhi-based non-governmental Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security, had Bt brinjal been allowed to be cultivated on a large scale there was a possibility that natural varieties of the vegetable would have been wiped out in no time. “The pests to which Bt brinjal is supposed to be resistant to would naturally go for the natural varieties.”
Sharma said that the brinjal originated in India and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety has provisions that discourage genetic modification of crops in their land of origin. The protocol is a supplement to the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international treaty adopted in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 to protect biodiversity and ensure sustainable use and equitable sharing of the world’s genetic resources.
Chitra Devi, a scientist at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) in New Delhi, told IPS that earlier release of Bt brinjal into the environment could result in the rapid contamination of natural brinjal varieties with bacterial genes through cross-pollination.
Devi explained that the structure of the brinjal flower was such that it facilitated a high rate of cross pollination and also that once contamination occurs it would be difficult to reverse it. As part of its work of conserving biodiversity, the NPGR has conserved some 2,500 varieties of brinjal.
Doctors grouped under the voluntary People’s Health Forum have also been vocally opposing the introduction of Bt brinjal on the grounds that its effect on human health was untested and unknown.
Dr. Mira Shiva, a prominent member of the Forum, told IPS that rats fed with GM crops have developed fatal lung, liver and kidney problems – an indication that humans could develop similar problems. “Moreover, in this country there is no system in place for post-market surveillance on human consumers of GM food crops,” she added.
In a press statement, Gyanendra Shukla, director for Monsanto in India, claimed that because GM plants “are studied much more extensively than any other plant product in the world,” they provide “equal or greater assurance of safety.”
But P. M. Bhargava, a dissenting voice in the GEAC, said there were other questions that need to be asked. “To begin with, we do not need GM crops to feed India’s one billion plus people. We can feed two billion or more people simply by raising food productivity, which is comparatively low in the country.”
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