With Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh's final decision on commercial cultivation of Bt Brinjal expected today, Indian scientists, politicians and environmental actitivists remain sharply divided over the issue of allowing the genetically modified vegetable to hit the market.
Bt Brinjal is a trans-genic brinjal created by inserting a gene (Cry 1Ac) from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringenisis (Bt) into brinjal.
The insertion of the gene into the vegetable is said to give the plant resistance against insects like the brinjal fruit and shoot borer. Upon ingestion of the Bt toxin, the insect's digestive processes are disrupted, ultimately resulting in its death.
The government's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), which cleared Bt Brinjal for commercial release in October, said it will reduce the farmers' dependence on pesticides and enable higher yields.
That point of view has been supported by Science and Technology Minister Prithviraj Chavan, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Director General Samir Brahmachari and Department of Biotechnology Secretary MK Bhan, among others. They have also said Bt Brinjal is safe for human consumption. Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar has said that his ministry is in favour of Bt Brinjal.
Pawar said once the GEAC had given its approval the government had no role left to play. This elicited a sharp reaction from Ramesh, as the rules say the final approval has to be given by the environment ministry.
Ramesh on Monday completed a series of public meetings on the issue in various cities of India. At the meetings in Kolkata, Bhubaneswar, Hyderabad and Bangalore there was vociferous opposition. However small groups of farmers have said they are in favour of Bt Brinjal if it assures less dependence on pesticides. Ramesh has maintained that he will fully consider all aspects.
Since agriculture is a state subject, even if Ramesh says yes, the state agriculture departments will have the final say.
The governments of 10 states that between them produce most of the brinjal in the country -- West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar (the three account for 60 percent of the country's brinjal production), Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Uttrakhand -- have already stated they will not allow Bt Brinjal.
Opponents to the introduction of the genetically modified food crop are principally worried on two counts -- one, what happens if there is accidental cross-pollination between Bt and ordinary brinjal? Will the modified gene get into the normal brinjal? What will the consequences be?
Two, what are the long-term effects of Bt Brinjal on human health, given that long-term trials have not been held? The product is too new for that.
There are as many as 2,500 natural varieties of brinjals cultivated in India. The National Gene Bank here has accessions for nearly 3,550. Many of these also have medicinal value. The opponents are also worried because Bt Brinjal will carry no label since there are no labelling laws in the country for vegetables.
Another question raised time and again is why the GEAC had kept its test reports under wraps. The chairman had said that seed developers -- US firm Monsanto and Indian firm Mahyco -- wanted the information kept confidential in the "research and development stages". This claim was severely critisised by global environmental group Greenpeace.
"A moratorium should be placed on the release for the time being. The regulatory system needs strengthening and proper tests need to be done independently," Pushpa Bhargava, Supreme Court appointee to the GEAC said.
The only genetically modified crop cultivated commercially in India now is Bt Cotton. It has had mixed reviews, but there is such a large area under its cultivation that India is now the sixth largest country growing genetically modified crops.
There are only 14 countries that cultivate GM food crops, according to the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, near Hyderabad.
After Bt Brinjal, there are many more genetically modified food crops awaiting GEAC approval -- 25 kinds of rice, 23 kinds of tomatoes, many types of groundnut, pigeon peas, potato, mustard, sugarcane, soy and okra.