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Govt overrules own experts, puts Bt brinjal in deep freeze

Citing a lack of scientific consensus and the absence of any “over-riding urgency”,the government today put an indefinite “moratorium” on the introduction of a genetically-modified brinjal developed after ten years of research....

Written by Amitabh Sinha
New Delhi | February 10, 2010 2:59:51 am

Citing a lack of scientific consensus and the absence of any “over-riding urgency”,the government today put an indefinite “moratorium” on the introduction of a genetically-modified brinjal developed after ten years of research,which was cleared by India’s apex technical committee three months ago.

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh,who took the decision,questioned the logic of letting private companies drive biotechnology research in agriculture. The brinjal in question has been developed by Mahyco — a private firm in which global seed major Monsanto holds a 26% stake — in collaboration with two Indian agricultural universities.

“We cannot depend on private sector to drive the biotechnology research in our agriculture sector. I think research in seeds is as strategic as space or nuclear research. I am therefore a firm believer in the strong involvement of public sector research in agriculture sector,” Ramesh told reporters.

“India’s first green revolution was not powered by the private sector. And there is no reason to believe that the second green revolution would be driven by private companies,” he told The Indian Express later.

Experts expressed surprise at Ramesh’s line.

“I am a great supporter of Jairam Ramesh,but is he asking for a reversal of the policy on public-private research in agriculture prevalent for the last several years? Is it that what we have been doing for over 15 years is wrong? There cannot be a separate policy for the Agriculture Ministry and the Ministry of Environment,” said Y K Alagh,agriculture expert and a former member of the Planning Commission.

Alagh described the government’s decision on Bt brinjal as “unfortunate”.

Ramesh argued that there was no “clear consensus” in the scientific community over the safety of the crop,that many state governments had strongly opposed its introduction,that public sentiment was overwhelmingly negative,and that there was “no over-riding urgency” to introduce it in the country.

“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 as 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,” Ramesh said.

“By taking this decision,the government is being responsible to science and responsive to society,” he added.

The decision,announced a day ahead of schedule,came after a month of often-acrimonious debate in emotionally-charged public meetings in seven cities. The public meetings were organized by Ramesh after the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC),the technical body authorized to clear GM crops for use,gave its approval to the Bt brinjal in October last year,but left it to the government to take the final call in view of the “very important policy implication at the national level”.

If cleared,Bt brinjal would have become the first genetically-modified vegetable to be grown anywhere in the world. In India,the only GM crop allowed to be cultivated is Bt cotton,which has brought about a huge increase in yields.

Bt cotton was cleared by the GEAC in 2002,without referring it to the government. But Ramesh today renamed the GEAC,replacing Approval with Appraisal,to underscore the fact that,henceforth,decisions of the committee would not be considered final.

Ramesh also sought to make a distinction between Bt cotton and Bt brinjal on the grounds that the former was not a food crop.

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