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Friday, February 12, 2010

The controversy behind Bt Brinjal in India

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Here is good news for those who oppose the commercialization of the Bt brinjal in India and the good news is that the Environment Ministry of the Government of India has imposed a moratorium on release of the transgenic brinjal hybrid that has been developed by Mahyco, the seed giant.
How long will the moratorium last? The Environment Minister Mr. Jairam Ramesh has reportedly expressed that it would last till the safety of the brinjal is not established. Here, safety relates to long term impact of Bt brinjal on human health and environment. It also relates to the rich genetic wealth of Indian brinjal species. The Environment Minister is reported to be of the opinion that the moratorium would remain imposed until common public and professionals were not satisfied with the scientific studies that is to be carried out in the country regarding the safety of the product.

Mr. Jairam Ramesh, Environment Minister of India

Various scientific and Environmental Organisations are of the opinion that no mystery has so far remained unfolded regarding transgenic may it be the Bt brinjal or any other crop. There is no need of further study and gaining public opinion in this case. Facts have already been established that it absolutely unsafe to grow this brinjal or any other crop of the category. Bt brinjal has been created by inserting a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. Hence, it is capable of resisting several insect pests and could reduce the use of pesticide- reports The Hindu in its February 10, 2010 issue. Greenpeace is campaigning for tests on the genetically modified crops amid concerns about their long-term health effects. The organisation’s interest arose after 1,600 cattle died after feeding on GM cotton fields in 2006. Greenpeace claims Bt Brinjal contains the same hazardous gene as the cotton. in view of all this the international organisation carried out an awareness campaign in many parts of India and here is a scene of the campaign from Hyderabad in which  a voluntier is seen convincing a farmer against the Bt brinjal.

Greenpeace Campaign against Bt Brinjal

Campaign against Bt brinjal

Bt Brinjal

According to other media sources reports that the decision to delay introduction of GE vegetables in India until further tests have taken place, is seen as boosting the Congress party among its main farming vote base, much of which is fearful of GE use, and comes despite pressure from Farm Minister Sharad Pawar who supported the introduction of GE Bt brinjal. The Bt brinjal story travelled in world news receiving attention in the UAE, in The National print edition, also featuring the Greenpeace action in India. The Guardian and The Guarian International print editions also feature the Bt brinjal campaign, mentioning that several warnings have been flagged to the government from scientists and opposition from the public following the Bt cotton controversy. The Hindustan Times print edition warned once again against the potentially disastrous consequences of introducing Bt brinjal.Students of several Indian Universities demonstrated against the move to introduce Bt brinjal and here is a photo appeared in the February 3, 2010 issue of The Hindu in which students of Punjab University have found a unique way to protest against the move of introducing the product.

It is important to note that Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had recommended the approval of Bt brinjal in October 2009. The approval activated widespread protests against the commercialization of the crop in India. What is truth, is based on science and hence can be accepted or rejected at once. However, the Environment Minister has pointed out some of the solid reasons behind imposing the moratorium and these reasons are –

Lack of clear consensus among the scientific community,
Opposition from 10 State Governments especially from major brinjal producing states,
Questions raised about the safety and testing process,
Lack of independent biotechnology regulatory authority,
Negative public sentiments,
Fears among consumers,
Lack of a global precedent.

Fresh scientific studies and improvement in the testing process are to be done by scientists during the period of moratorium. The Environment Minister has categorically said, “If you need long term toxicity tests, then you must do it, no matter how long it takes … There is no hurry. There is no overriding urgency or food security arrangement for Bt brinjal. Our objective is to restore public confidence and trust in the product. If it can not be done, so be it.” 

It is said that an independent regulatory authority is being planned to be formed during the moratorium period holding a parliamentary debate on private investment in agricultural biotechnology. The minister said, “I don’t believe India should be dependent on private sector and industry. I believe seeds are as strategic to India as space and nuclear issues.”

Professor M.S.Swaminathan, known as the father of Economic Ecology in India, and also as the Father of Green Revolution in India has said that – biotechnology was a powerful tool but it should be utilized for the public good. Clearances should be on case-by- case basis – reports The Hindu in its February 10, 2010 issue.

Prof. M. S. Swaminathan

On imposing moratorium on the commercialization of Bt brinjal produced by Mahyco, Prof. Swaminathan has said – it is a wise and appropriate decision. According to the great scientist and Rajaya Sabha Member Prof. M.S.Swaminathan, it was appropriate not to hurry and to look at problems to the satisfaction of all. Suman Sahai of the Gene Campaign found it a “step in the right direction,” given the fact that genetically modified organisms was a technology that raised several safety concerns. “His [Mr. Ramesh’s] emphasis that human health and safety must be secured above all is welcome.” It was incorrect to assume that GE foods were necessary for food security as all scientists and policymakers knew that food security rested on several other aspects.

Food policy analyst Devendra Sharma said the government’s decision meant that farm scientists had to change tack and tune research to people’s needs and not company’s profits.
The All-India Kisan Sabha said the decision was “an acknowledgement of the concerns collectively articulated by farmers’ organisations, scientists and civil society groups across the country.”

Mahyco, the seed company, said it respected the decision of the government and would follow its directives.The Hindu reports further in its February 10, 2010 issue - India needs an independent biotechnology regulator and a transparent testing system, according to Union Minister of State for Environment Jairam Ramesh, who declared a moratorium on Bt brinjal on Tuesday.

As a first step in the transparency process, he said the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC), which had recommended approval of Bt brinjal last October, would soon have a name change — with “Approvals” changed to “Appraisal.”

“It’s psychological…more than a name change, it’s a mindset change,” Mr. Ramesh told journalists here. “People should not think they are coming for automatic approvals. They take it for granted…They must remember that we have a right to reject it as well.”

If approved, Bt brinjal would have been the world’s first genetically modified vegetable. While Indian farmers already produce Bt cotton, Mr. Ramesh said that a food crop had to be handled with more caution. “Tests for food products must be made more stringent than tests for drugs…That has not been the case in Bt brinjal.”

If, despite the moratorium, genetically modified seeds were introduced into the market, the Minister said, it was up to the States to crack down. “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.

He was careful to say that his decision should not be read as an indictment of genetic engineering or discourage research to develop crop improvement tools. “I have not decided on the future of Bt bhindi or tomato or rice. This is a rejection of this particular case for the time being…[Future proposals] have to be examined and decided on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

However, Mr. Ramesh said there was no question of a review of the moratorium until there is scientific consensus, public confidence and agreement on the tests needed for health and safety. With several international experts criticising the GEAC’s testing norms, the Minister said that the Committee “must become more transparent.”

“A National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority has been on the anvil for six years and will be set up during the moratorium period,” he said.

He defended the transparency of his own decision. “My conscience is clear. I have followed a democratic, transparent, often acrimonious process,” he said, adding that the reports on the public consultations as well as letters from the State governments, scientists and other stakeholders were all available on the Ministry’s website. “I had to balance science and society, producers and consumers, Centre and States.”

Key Words : Bt. brinjal, Green Revolution, Prof. M. S. Swaminathan, Greenpeace,gene campaign,National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority, moratorium

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