India says no to Bt Brinjal, pending tests


New Delhi : Placing an indefinite moratorium on the commercial release of Bt Brinjal, which would otherwise have been the first genetically modified food crop in India, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh Tuesday said he took the “precautionary approach” as there was no clear consensus on the subject among Indian scientists.

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“Impose a moratorium on the release of Bt Brinjal till such time that independent scientific studies establish satisfaction of both public and professionals, the safety of the product from the point of view of long-term impact on human health and environment,” Ramesh said at a press conference here.

He pointed to the opposition to the genetically modified vegetable from 11 state governments, green activists and farmers during his public hearings over the issue at seven cities around the country.

“The decision is based on information that there is no clear consensus within the scientific community. The environmental scientists raised so many questions which were not satisfactorily answered,” Ramesh said.

“There was also so much opposition from various states,” he said, adding that the “negative public sentiments” could not be ignored since there is no “overriding urgency to clear Bt Brinjal”.

Ramesh clarified that the moratorium in no way implied a “conditional acceptance” of Bt Brinjal.

“I would like to say that this approach (moratorium) is responsible to the scientific community and responsive to the society,” he said.

The minister also clarified that the moratorium was to the version of Bt Brinjal being developed by Maharashtra-based firm Mahyco. Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, the University of Agriculture in Dharwad (Karnataka) and two laboratories of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research are also developing genetically modified versions of brinjal.

Asked about the possibility of spurious Bt Brinjal seeds making their way into the market, Ramesh said it was up to state governments to check this. “I hope we don’t see a repeat of Bt Cotton where spurious and illegal Bt Cotton seeds found their way into the market,” he said.

The decision on Bt Brinjal was originally scheduled to be announced Wednesday, but the environment minister advanced the declaration by a day. The issue has raised tempers around the country and in political circles. The agriculture and science and technology ministries had supported the commercial release of Bt Brinjal after the government’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee had cleared it last October. It was up to the environment ministry to decide on the matter.

Ramesh said his decision followed consultation with senior scientists including M.S. Swaminathan, the father of India’s Green Revolution. “I have spoken to a large number of scientists, but in this case science is inadequate,” he said.

India is the world’s largest brinjal producer. West Bengal produces more than any other state, and the Left Front government there was one of the 11 that had declared it would not allow commercial release of Bt Brinjal.

The supporters of the genetically modified crop have pointed out that it would reduce pesticide use and thus improve yields, while bringing down input costs for farmers.

But, Ramesh pointed out: “I am in no hurry (to introduce Bt Brinjal). There is no overriding food security argument to Bt Brinjal.”