Bt brinjal will not make it to your dinner table for now. On Tuesday, the Environment Ministry announced its decision to impose a moratorium on the release of the transgenic brinjal hybrid developed by Mahyco, a subsidiary of global seed giant 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 Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh.

Public consultations

The Minister’s decision comes after a month of public consultations in seven cities, which were attended by approximately 8,000 people. They were organised after widespread protests against the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee’s (GEAC) recommendation of approval of Bt brinjal in October 2009.

Mr. Ramesh attributed the decision to several factors: the lack of clear consensus among the scientific community; opposition from 10 State governments, especially from the major brinjal-producing States; questions raised about the safety and testing process; the lack of an independent biotechnology regulatory authority; negative public sentiment and fears among consumers and the lack of a global precedent.

“My decision is both responsible to science and responsive to society,” he said adding he did not come under pressure from any quarter in arriving at the decision.

Fresh studies

Mr. Ramesh said the moratorium period would be used to commission fresh scientific studies and reform the testing process. “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,” he said. “Our objective is to restore public confidence and trust in the Bt brinjal product. If it cannot be done, so be it.”

The moratorium period should also be used to operationalise an independent regulatory authority and hold a parliamentary debate on private investment in agricultural biotechnology.

“I don’t believe India should be dependent on the private sector seed industry,” said Mr. Ramesh. “I believe seeds are as strategic to India as space and nuclear issues.”

Bt brinjal, created by inserting a gene from the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis – hence the Bt – is capable of resisting several insect pests and could reduce the use of pesticide.

Independent biotechnology regulator

India needs an independent biotechnology regulator and a transparent testing system, according to Union Minister of State for Environment Jairam Ramesh, who declared a moratorium on Bt brinjal on Tuesday.

As a first step in the transparency process, he said the Genetic Engineering Approvals Committee (GEAC), which had recommended approval of Bt brinjal last October, would soon have a name change — with “Approvals” changed to “Appraisal.”

“It’s psychological…more than a name change, it’s a mindset change,” Mr. Ramesh told journalists here. “People should not think they are coming for automatic approvals. They take it for granted…They must remember that we have a right to reject it as well.”

If approved, Bt brinjal would have been the world’s first genetically modified vegetable. While Indian farmers already produce Bt cotton, Mr. Ramesh said that a food crop had to be handled with more caution. “Tests for food products must be made more stringent than tests for drugs…That has not been the case in Bt brinjal.”

If, despite the moratorium, genetically modified seeds were introduced into the market, the Minister said, it was up to the States to crack down. “I hope we don’t see a repeat of Bt cotton where spurious and illegal Bt cotton seeds found their way into the market,” he said.

He was careful to say that his decision should not be read as an indictment of genetic engineering or discourage research to develop crop improvement tools. “I have not decided on the future of Bt bhindi or tomato or rice. This is a rejection of this particular case for the time being…[Future proposals] have to be examined and decided on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

However, Mr. Ramesh said there was no question of a review of the moratorium until there is scientific consensus, public confidence and agreement on the tests needed for health and safety. With several international experts criticising the GEAC’s testing norms, the Minister said that the Committee “must become more transparent.”

“A National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority has been on the anvil for six years and will be set up during the moratorium period,” he said.

He defended the transparency of his own decision. “My conscience is clear. I have followed a democratic, transparent, often acrimonious process,” he said, adding that the reports on the public consultations as well as letters from the State governments, scientists and other stakeholders were all available on the Ministry’s website. “I had to balance science and society, producers and consumers, Centre and States.”