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The debate on the modified Brinjal seemed to have ended when Indian Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh abruptly calling off the battle and settling for a 2 year moratorium on the commercial release of the Bt-Brinjal in India. However, he made it clear that this decision was for Brinjal alone and as of now did not apply to all the other modified foods in the pipeline. So, we must prepare ourselves for the inevitable controversies that might arise once these other modified veggies are forced into the limelight. Of course the Government is now seriously looking at a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (not approval, mind you, but regulatory) for assessing the safety and putative efficacy of these crops. The idea, while supported in principle by most sections, nevertheless has incurred some negative comments. Many scientists and activists regard the move with suspicion as it has been mooted by the Department of Biotechnology, which has a vested interest in promoting transgenic Crops in India.

The war is not over even as far as the various Ministers and Departments of the Government of India (GOI) are concerned. Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar wants the moratorium reversed as he feels the current data provided by the Company (Monsanto –Mahyco) and the tests carried out by them are sufficient to warrant commercialization of the crop. Similarly, though not directly opposing the Moratorium, Minister Prithviraj Chauhan says that he is “satisfied with the tests carried out by the scientists but not opposed to further tests for evaluating safety.” With all this strong posturing and severely divided scientific opinion, the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been forced to step in and prevent a full-blown face-off between his ministers. He will meet with the ministers today and try to sort out the differences in opinion that have arisen. He will also try and clear the scene as far as the approval authority is concerned. Considering that the GEAC has come under flack for its controversial decision, the big question is if not the GEAC, who will be the next body that will decide the fate of the crops.

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In a move that took the nation by surprise, Indian Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, announced a moratorium on the commercialization of Bt-Brinjal. He did this almost a day ahead of schedule and managed to leave everyone amazed at the speed with which the decision was made. Coming in the wake of heated and emotional debates with farmers, scientists, environmental groups and various other stake-holders, held across India, the decision has come as a huge relief for marginal farmers who would have borne the brunt of this technology to the hilt. Also, I personally consider this to be a victory of activists like Dr.Vandana Shiva, who have been battling the skewed policies of Monsanto for years now. The furore created by the current food-crop has been instrumental in making the government listen to sane voices instead of simply pushing an invalidated and potentially dangerous technology down our throats. So I guess it is a victory for democracy as well. This debate has taught us many important lessons, and I think this is a good opportunity to learn from them and to enable ourselves to build a strong, unbiased and scientifically irrefutable system for regulating the entry of new technology in this country.

Jairam Ramesh

Jairam Ramesh

In a hurried press conference on Tuesday night, Mr. Ramesh, announced the moratorium on Bt-Brinjal, which has been marketed in India by Mahyco-Monsanto. The moratorium will last “till such time independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and environment, including the rich genetic wealth existing in brinjal in our country,” said Ramesh. He further went on to say, “If you need long term toxicity tests, then you must do it, no matter how long it takes… There is no hurry. There is no overriding urgency or food security argument for [release of] Bt brinjal. Our objective is to restore public confidence and trust in the Bt brinjal product. If it cannot be done, so be it.” He made an important point as far as seed security and biodiversity are concerned, saying, “I don’t believe India should be dependent on the private sector seed industry, I believe seeds are as strategic to India as space and nuclear issues.”

Dr M S Swaminathan

Dr M S Swaminathan

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