The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), India's bio-technology regulator, has approved commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) Bt Brinjal. If also approved by the government, it will become the first genetically modified food crop in India. Will the Centre go ahead and permit the open cultivation of a GM food crop, without labelling laws in place?

Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh confirmed that the GEAC had given its approval for the environmental release of the Bt Brinjal, but said the government was yet to take a decision on the recommendations of the committee.

Talking to reporters here on Wednesday, Mr. Ramesh said the GEAC’s recommendations and the review committee report had been submitted but these would be studied in depth before a final decision.

He said the GEAC had recommended that an expert committee, set up to assess its impact, had suggested the commercial release of Bt Brinjal.

“There are arguments in favour and against and these will take lot of time to study before a final decision is taken. But I have been told that the committee has recommended introduction of Bt Brinjal for commercial cultivation.”

Amid concerns over the lack of bio-safety data of such crops having environmental implications and strong opposition from the civil society groups and non-governmental organisations, Mr. Ramesh said the final decision would not be taken under the influence of any company or any NGO, and it was wrong to say that the final approval had been given. “I believe that the GEAC is a professional body and respect its autonomy. The decision will be taken in a democratic and transparent manner,” Mr. Ramesh said.

Disapproves of protest

Strongly disapproving of the manner in which the NGOs, particularly Greenpeace, had registered its protest, the Minister said it amounted to blackmailing. Greenpeace activists had been sending thousands of faxes from across the world.

GM crops are those in which genetic material (DNA) is altered for some perceived advantage either to the producer or the consumer. There are four varieties of brinjals on the table for approval with the important one being cry 1Ac. The research is also part of a USAID programme called Agri-Biotechnology Support Programme (ABSP) under a private-public partnership where three Indian institutions — the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (Varanasi), the University of Agricultural Sciences (Dharwad) and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (Coimbatore) are working with Monsanto and Mahyco.

Bt Brinjal has been under trial for the past nine years and was first sent to the GEAC for approval in 2004. It was cleared by a panel led by Deepak Pental but a review committee was constituted in 2007 when civil society groups and NGOs raised doubts over health safety and environmental concerns. The outcome of this committee was discussed on Wednesday.

The outcome of this committee was discussed on Wednesday and the GEAC cleared the commercial cultivation of Bt. brinjal.