India Insight

Genetically modified India

The debate over regulating genetically modified crops in India is back after two years of silence that followed the moratorium on the Bt brinjal, a genetically modified eggplant. This is thanks to the government’s wavering policy on agricultural biotechnology. If you study its policy since the eggplant flare-up, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was designed to do two things that don’t quite fit together.

Here is what happened:

The government released its report on the hills of the Western Ghats nearly nine months after the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (WGEEP) submitted it, and then only under a court order. The report, among other things, warned that genetically modified organisms were a threat to biodiversity in India. The government attached a disclaimer to the report, saying that it has not formally accepted the conclusions.

Meanwhile, minutes of meetings of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) — the central government’s regulatory body for GM crops — reveal that the committee is trying to convince state governments to allow field trials of genetically modified crops.

This is happening as India’s National Biodiversity Authority considers whether it will sue Monsanto and some of the agricultural universities involved in promoting Bt brinjal in India, according to information given by the authority in response to a Right To Information filing.

The authority has said that the agricultural universities and Monsanto are guilty of bio-piracy. That means exploiting the knowledge of India’s indigenous peoples for commercial gain without permission, compensation or recognition.

Why let a debate determine the fate of GM foods?

Students hold a mock funeral procession against genetically modified brinjal crop in Chandigarh January 28, 2010. REUTERS/Ajay VermaThere’s nothing Indians like better than a good debate.

So when Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh announced last month that he would hold public debates to decide the commercial fate of genetically modified brinjal (eggplant), there were hopes these would provide a chance for all stakeholders to be heard.

But the debates, in seven cities including Kolkata, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, were chaotic, nothing more than acrimonious shouting matches between environmental activists and scientists, who say they were not given a fair chance to voice their opinion.

One scientist said he had his hand raised for more than half an hour, but was not allowed to speak. Another said he was told he could make a presentation, but was again not allowed to. Others were not even permitted to enter the premises.

Are we ready for genetically modified vegetables?

You may soon find India’s first genetically modified vegetable, Bt brinjal, making its way to your vegetable market.

The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, which is responsible for approval of proposals relating to release of genetically engineered products, on Wednesday approved the environmental release of the vegetable but it still has to get a nod from the central government.

Many in India are concerned over the harmful effects of the vegetable and question the need for a genetically modified vegetable.

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