Right course

Right course

After all the heat and dust generated over the ‘approval’ given to the transgenic brinjal developed by Mahyco, a subsidiary of global seeds giant Monsanto, the Union environment ministry has done the right thing by imposing a ‘moratorium’ on its introduction in Indian farm lands. While putting a halt to the controversial move, environment minister Jairam Ramesh struck a mature note saying “the moratorium will continue till such time independent scientific studies establish to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product in terms of the impact on human health and environment, including the rich genetic wealth existing in our country.” The decision has come after a month of acrimonious public consultations across the country where the overwhelming view was that the ministry’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had adopted a non-transparent and extremely short-sighted approach to an issue of enormous public importance and consequences for Indian agriculture.

As the minister himself admitted, no other country has so far permitted a genetically modified vegetable for mass production and consumption and there has not been sufficient study on various aspects, including the long-term effects of toxins present in Bt brinjal on humans. In a clear indictment of procedures adopted by the GEAC, Ramesh also said that unlike Bt cotton, which has already been introduced, “the tests for food products must be more stringent than tests even for drugs. That has not been the case with Bt brinjal.” The Central government should be congratulated for its democratic approach in the face of intense pressure from various powerful lobbies, which were obviously pushing for a quick and favourable decision.

The government has rightly emphasised that the decision should not be read as an indictment of genetic engineering or research to develop better varieties of crops. But, considering that GE research is on in some two dozen food crops and vegetables, the debate on Bt brinjal has set valuable benchmarks which need to be adhered to before the technology becomes acceptable. There is also need for more stringent safety and testing procedures, a liability clause in the Environment Protection Act that makes a GM crop developer liable for any potential leakage or contamination and more importantly, an independent biotechnology regulatory authority to monitor and control the processes. It should also serve as a lesson to the agricultural universities around the country that they should reorient their research to truly serve Indian farmers rather than promoting the interests of commercial organisations.

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