M. Singh in pacifying mode. Credit: AP Photo

India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has intervened in the political wrangle that erupted over a genetically modified (GM) eggplant strain due for commercial release. Approval of the locally developed Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) variety appeared imminent, but on February 9, the minister of environment and forests, Jairam Ramesh, responded to public opposition by declaring an indefinite moratorium on the approval of Bt brinjal, as it is known locally, on the grounds of insufficient data to confirm that it is safe to eat. This decision has created a cabinet rift, prompting Singh to hold a consultation with senior government officials. Bt brinjal is India's first locally developed GM food crop and was created by Mahyco, a Jalna-based Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company in a joint venture with Monsanto, the St. Louis–based seed giant. Last October, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), India's official regulatory body for registering GM organisms, approved release of the transgenic brinjal, opening the door for commercialization of another dozen or so GM crops in the pipeline. The environment minister's decision to over-rule the GEAC was unexpected. But it followed vociferous feedback from civil societies and advice from scientists, including Monkombu Swaminathan of 'green revolution' fame and Pushpa Bhargava, founder of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, that additional safety testing of the GM brinjal was warranted. Chavali Kameswara Rao, secretary of Bangalore-based Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, believes the environment minister caved in to intense lobbying pressure from activists. He fears the resultant delay of commercialization will promote clandestine cultivation of Bt brinjal—similar to what happened previously in India with Bt cotton (Nat. Biotechnol. 22, 1333–1334, 2004). On February 24, Singh and senior cabinet members agreed to set up a national biotech regulatory authority to oversee registration of transgenic products and requested that the GEAC resolve outstanding safety concerns relating to Bt brinjal. No time frame for these deliberations was set, however. The Department of Biotechnology (DBT), the main funding agency for transgenic research, has stayed out of the controversy. But as Prasantha Kumar Ghosh, DBT's former head of biosafety puts it, “There is no scientific basis for a moratorium.” Bhim Sain Bajaj, president of the Hyderabad chapter of All-India Biotech Association, agrees. “It is a big mistake...the time will come when India will have to import rice and vegetables and we will regret [this decision].”