India has become the first country in the world to allow large-scale field trials of genetically modified food crops with certain restrictions.
Four hybrid varieties of Bt brinjal, promising better yield with less use of pesticides, will be tested across 11 locations in the country till April next year. “The large-scale field trials of a GM crop have been allowed for the first time,” an environment and forest ministry official said.
The ministry has, however, imposed restrictions. No trial can take place in fields owned by farmers. The trials will be conducted in Indian Council for Agricultural Research farms under the direct supervision of the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (IIVR). This comes in the wake of farmer protests in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh over field trials of Bt rice.
For the first time, the socio-economic impact of Bt brinjal and any change in its taste and nutritional value will also be done. The ministry has decided that specific skin sensitisation tests on guinea pigs and the impact of the plant on soil will be conducted as part of bio-safety studies.
The government also wants a minimum isolation distance of 300 metres to be maintained to check any contamination from transgenic food crop. This follows the Supreme Court’s direction to maintain a minimum isolation distance of 200 metres. The government has also accepted the suggestion of the Deepak Pental Committee, constituted to examine Bt brinjal, that independent studies on the toxicity of the crop should be conducted.
Unlike Bt cotton, the GM food crops are for human consumption and even a slight toxicity can cause medical problems. So far, data generated by Bt brinjal companies shows no toxicity. The Bt brinjal development is significant because its success would open doors for large-scale tests on genetically modified tomato and okra, the other two food crops for which the ministry has allowed bio-safety studies last week.
However, the decision has stirred a hornet’s nest among groups opposed to GM crops. The Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture said the trials should not have been allowed till complete bio-safety data is generated on Bt brinjal. “Some of the prescribed tests like foliar feeding studies (which have been mandated after reports of animal mortality and morbidity after open grazing on Bt cotton fields) have not been completed on Bt brinjal,” said its director Dr G.V. Ramanjaneyulu.
India's tryst with GM crops started in 2002 when commercial cultivation of Bt Cotton was permitted. It was followed by large-scale protests but cotton traders said the technology made India the second largest cotton producer after China.