NEW DELHI // India decided yesterday to block the commercial cultivation of a genetically modified aubergine that would have been its first GM food crop following weeks of passionate protests from farmers and environmentalists. The decision to stop cultivation of Bt Brinjal - as the GM aubergine is known - was announced by India's minister for environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh. "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 public and professionals, the safety of the product," Mr Ramesh said.
"A moratorium implies rejection of this particular case of release for time being. It does not, in any way, mean conditional acceptance. This should be clearly understood." The moratorium marks a huge victory for environmental groups that are campaigning against the introduction of GM food to India - one of the last big untapped markets for such transgenics companies as US-based Monsanto. Greenpeace, the environmental group, welcomed the decision and called for "stringent" measures to ensure that no GM crops were released, and that GM companies were held liable for accidental or illegal releases.
"The minister must now reassure the nation that the moratorium will not lead to a back-door entry of Bt Brinjal or the 41 other food crops which are in different stages of trial in the country," it said. But many scientists see it as a setback for India and other developing nations, where hunger is widespread and farmers are struggling to increase yields, as well as adapt to climate change. "We are depriving our farmers of a technology that would increase production," Bhagirath Choudhary of the International Service for Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications said in an interview.
"This technology can empower farmers to be self-reliant. It can help to alleviate poverty and hunger." Aubergine has been grown for more than 4,000 years in India, where it is known as "the king of vegetables". It is the most consumed vegetable in the country after the potato and India is the world's second largest producer of aubergines after China. However, the crop is often blighted by a small insect known as the fruit and shoot borer - so called because the aubergine is technically a fruit - which spoils as much as 60 per cent of aubergines in India.
To try to prevent this, Bt Brinjal was developed by an Indian company, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co (Mahyco), in collaboration with Monsanto. Their scientists inserted a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into the DNA or genetic code of the vegetable to produce pesticidal toxins in every cell. The borers are killed when they ingest small amounts of the vegetable because the Bt protein creates holes in their stomachs.
Mahyco says humans and animals are safe because the toxins break down during cooking or on contact with stomach acid. It says Bt Brinjal could more than double yields, and reduce pesticide use by up to 80 per cent, without increasing seed prices. "BT is specifically targeted at controlling this insect," M K Sharma, general manager of Mahyco, said. "One gene is not going to make a difference." India's genetic engineering approval committee, the regulatory body for GM crops, approved Bt Brinjal for cultivation in October after a series of tests. But the decision triggered widespread protests from farmers and environmental activists, and the government was forced to hold off on formally approving the crop.
To try to win public support, Mr Ramesh embarked on a series of nationwide public consultations. Government officials and many agricultural experts argued that India should adopt GM technology to help achieve food security and boost its failing agricultural sector. India's population of 1.1 billion is growing at an average annual rate of 1.5 per cent, yet agricultural growth has been stagnant for years. India has had to import edible oils, wheat and sugar to make up for shortfalls, and last year it had to ban exports of non-basmati rice, to protect national stocks after a poor harvest. India also has some of the highest levels of child malnutrition in the world.
Proponents of Bt Brinjal cited the success of Bt cotton, which was introduced in 2002 and has helped India overtake the United States as the world's second biggest producer. As Mr Ramesh's tour continued, the level of opposition to Bt Brinjal became apparent. His meetings descended into slanging matches or violent confrontations. In the last week alone, 14 out of India's 28 states said that whatever the government's decision, they would not allow genetically modified food crops to be grown in their states.
Some opponents argued that insufficient independent tests had been carried out and that the genetic engineering committee's decision was taken based solely on data provided by the company. Others objected to the prospect of companies such as Monsanto becoming the main suppliers of seed to Indian farmers. "If our food production falls into the hands of big multinationals then India is no longer independent," Pushpa Bhargava, a committee member who voted against its introduction, said in an interview.
One of India's most influential spiritual leaders, Guru Sri Sri Ravishankar, said it would be "a sin to introduce the crop". Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, India's largest and oldest Hindu nationalist movement, went a step further. He likened modified aubergines to "terrorist infiltrators" sent by foreign powers to destabilise India. firstname.lastname@example.org