Published online 10 February 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.65

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India's transgenic aubergine in a stew

Environment ministry rejects bid to grow genetically modified crop.

protestPublic protests in India have helped to keep a genetically modified aubergine from being grown by farmers.Jagadeesh NV/EPA/Corbis

India's government has refused to allow commercial cultivation of what would have been the country's first genetically modified (GM) food crop. The decision has been welcomed by green activists, but some scientists say that it will set back Indian plant-biotechnology research.

On 9 February, environment minister Jairam Ramesh announced an indefinite moratorium on the cultivation of a transgenic version of aubergine, or brinjal, that is insect-resistant. The crop carries a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), and was developed by Mahyco–Monsanto Biotech, a joint venture between the Jalna-based Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company and the US seed giant Monsanto, based in St Louis county, Missouri.

Bt brinjal was approved for cultivation by India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), a scientific regulatory body, in October 2009. But stiff opposition from activists then forced the government to put off commercial release until further discussions were held (see 'Transgenic aubergines put on ice').

“This is a victory for India's food sovereignty.”

Gangula Ramanjaneyulu
Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Hyderabad

This week's announcement follows public consultations that were held in seven cities across the country. A 19-page statement issued by Ramesh said that his ministry had decided to impose a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal until independent scientific studies had established that it would not adversely affect the environment or human health. The minister said that there was still a lack of clear consensus within the scientific community on the issue.

The decision, he added, was also influenced by widespread opposition from state governments; negative public reaction to the prospect of growing Bt brinjal; and advice from Monkombu Swaminathan, the agricultural scientist known as the father of the green revolution in India. The moratorium period will be used to commission fresh scientific studies and to set up an independent regulatory authority for GM crops. Mahyco spokesperson Raju Barwale said that the company respected the decision of the environment ministry.

Argy bhaji

"This is a victory for India's food sovereignty, preserving the control of seeds and food in the hands of our farmers and consumers instead of a few multinational corporations like Monsanto," says Gangula Ramanjaneyulu, director of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Hyderabad.

GEAC member Pushpa Bhargava, the founding director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad and an active campaigner against Bt brinjal, added that he was pleased with the precedent-setting decision.

“A lot of people in crop biotech will be devastated.”

Chaveli Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education

But some scientists are disappointed, and worry that the ruling could delay the introduction of other GM crops developed by Indian scientists, such as rice that is insect-resistant (Bt rice) or enriched with vitamin A and micronutrients.

"Our national labs have all the genes for rice improvement, we do not need Monsanto," says Govindarajan Padmanabhan, a biochemist and former director of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. "The moratorium will actually affect the indigenous effort" to create GM crops that could feed India's rapidly growing population, he said.

"We have no less than ten GM products to get into the regulatory system for trials — including brinjal, chickpea, sorghum, sugar cane, castor [oil plant], rice and potato — that took 15 years to develop and a lot of money," adds Ananda Kumar, project director for plant biotechnology at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) in New Delhi. "All scientists associated with these projects are disillusioned."

Rice on the side

Ramesh insists that the moratorium is specific to Bt brinjal and should not discourage ongoing research. But Chaveli Kameswara Rao, secretary of the Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, a biotech advocacy group based in Bangalore, believes that it will have a broader impact. "A lot of people in crop biotech will be devastated. No money will come for research, and students rushing to get degrees in biotechnology will stop," he says. "It is bad for the country."

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But Maharaj Kishan Bhan, secretary for the Indian government's Department of Biotechnology — which, together with ICAR, funds the majority of GM crop research — disagrees. "I do not think our funding will decrease," he told Nature. "This year we are putting maximum emphasis on research in agricultural and environmental biotechnology."

Kameswara Rao points out that even if Bt brinjal cannot be grown legally, farmers may start cultivating it anyway, as has happened with Bt cotton (see 'Illegal seeds overtake India's cotton fields').

Indeed, Chinese farmers had been growing Bt rice for five years before receiving official government approval just four months ago, says Kumar. To prevent an unauthorized release of Bt brinjal in India, Ramanjaneyulu believes that the environment ministry should now confiscate the transgenic brinjal seeds held by Mahyco. 

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  • #60424

    Dear Editor,
    It is unfortunate that previous comments made on this thread have been removed without any intimation to comment makers.

    Now the story has come to an end with Dr P A Kumar, ex-PD-NRCPB-IARI already exposed for India bt-cotton fraud , unfortunately his unethical practices has put the nation far behind in modern transgenic agriculture era. Though he has run away from ICAR but such culprits should never be left over as they will do wrong wherever they are.

    Anurag chaurasia, ICAR, anurag_vns1@yahoo.co.in govtofindia.icar@gmail.com +919452196686(M)

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