- **UPDATED BELOW**
A Greenpeace activist dressed as an aubergine protests against Bt brinjal
India will decide tomorrow whether to approve its first genetically modified (GM) food crop. It is a move that supporters argue will help to avert a global food crisis but which critics say is being rushed through recklessly.
The new vegetable, an aubergine — or brinjal in Hindi — contains a toxic gene that poisons insect pests and will boost yields while reducing dependence on pesticides, its champions say. It would also open up the world’s second most-populous nation to at least 56 other GM crops that are in the final stages of development.
Scientists have warned that not enough is known about the effects of the new variety on human beings and the environment. Long-term toxicity and the risk of dangerous mutations have not been ruled out, they say.
The country’s rural masses, about 800 million of whom depend on the land for a living, are angry at the prospect of relying on overseas suppliers for expensive new seeds.
The new aubergine was created by inserting the gene Cry1Ac, from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringenesis, or Bt. The resulting variety, called Bt brinjal, contains a toxic protein that will kill the fruit and shoot borer, a big pest, according to its creator, Mahyco, an Indian partner of the American GM giant Monsanto.
Mahyco claims that Bt brinjal is safe for human beings because the toxin is broken down during cooking and, even if it is eaten raw, the poison is deactivated by acid in the gut. Scientists say that key safety tests have not been conducted, including screening for toxicity that may build up after Bt brinjal is eaten over a long period, and for dangerous mutations.
“This is potentially very dangerous,” said Pushpa Bhargava, of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), India’s GM regulator. “Once you release a GM crop, you can’t recall it.” He told The Times that the safety data on Bt brinjal presented to the GEAC was “unacceptable and incomplete” — partly because most of it was supplied by Mahyco.
He was outvoted when the committee, which included several scientists with ties to Mahyco, approved the new crop in October.
Jairam Ramesh, the Environment and Forests Minister, who will make the final decision on whether to approve Bt brinjal, has admitted that whichever course he chooses will be controversial. Over the past few weeks he has travelled the country, canvassing public opinion at meetings that have often been disrupted by protests.
GM companies argue that, without their techniques, the world has no chance of doubling agricultural output by 2050, as many experts believe that it must. Such concerns are high in the minds of politicians in India: after the weakest monsoon rains in nearly four decades the cost of staple foods has soared by nearly 20 per cent in the past year, hitting the poor hardest.
- Related: GM seeds do not increase crop yield
India has postponed the launch of its first genetically modified (GM) vegetable, saying it would adopt a cautious approach and wait for more scientific studies on the impact of the new variety of eggplant.
The decision contrasted to China, which last year approved the pest resistant strain of genetically modified rice and phytase corn as safe, and wants to speed up the commercialisation of some GM strains to address potential food shortages.
New Delhi's stance could come as a blow to seed producers such as Monsanto Co (MON.N) looking to enter India's huge market in GM food crops and where the company has substantial investment, including for research and development.
"The moratorium will be in place until all tests are carried out to the satisfaction of everyone ... If that means no start of production, so be it," Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh told reporters on Tuesday.
Until the tests are done, India should build a broad consensus to use GM technology in agriculture in a safe and sustainable manner, he said.
Ramesh said though some countries cultivated GM foods, that was not a good enough reason for India to follow suit.
The decision is seen as boosting the Congress party among its main farming vote base, much of which is fearful of GM use, and comes despite pressure from Farm Minister Sharad Pawar who supported introducing the modified "BT Brinjal", or eggplant.
It also signals Congress's leading position within the ruling coalition made up of difficult allies such as Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party. The Congress and Pawar, who also controls the food portfolio, are involved in a blame game over rising food prices.
"The government has been sensitive to public opinion and they have defused an upsurge among its farmer voters by this decision. It has more to do with politics, not any scientific reason," political commentator Amulya Ganguli said.