The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee’s recommendation that Bt brinjal be commercialised is a significant marker in the country’s slow and somewhat hesitant embrace of agri-biotechnology. The nod has come a full seven years after approval for the country’s first transgenic crop — Bt cotton. But Bt brinjal is the country’s first approved genetically modified (GM) food crop and the decision of the GEAC, the high-level committee under the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, may be read as an affirmation of a key principle. It is that transgenic seeds will be approved for commercialisation as long as they adhere to the bio safety and other requirements demanded by the regulatory process. This may well spur the process for clearance of other transgenic food crops at different stages of the regulatory and approval process. It is imperative that Union Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh, who says he will study the GEAC’s recommendation in depth before giving a final stamp of approval, bases his decision solely on the body of scientific data culled from Bt brinjal trials. He should ignore the huge pressure from organisations that have no time for the scientific evidence while claiming to speak for the environment and the public. It is not just the ‘organic’ movement but also the pesticide industry lobby that is viscerally opposed to Bt crops, which acquire a pest-resistant character with the introduction of a gene derived from a common soil bacterium ( bacillus thuringiensis).

Introduced commercially in the United States in the mid-1990s, genetically modified crops have expanded substantially in recent years. An estimated 125 million hectares were under such cover in 2008 in 25 countries, including China, Brazil, Egypt, and Australia. Even in GM-phobic Europe, seven countries, including Germany and Portugal, grow genetically modified maize commercially. It is nobody’s case that the massive spread of agro-biotechnology is proof of its safety. India’s regulatory process must continue to put transgenic plants through a battery of rigorous tests — for toxicity, allergenicity, bio safety, agronomic worth, and so forth — before recommending commercial release. It is also important that the country addresses issues such as labelling GM products through an independent regulatory process that commands public confidence. Legislation must be speedily introduced to set up a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority, as recommended in 2004 by a task force led by eminent agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan. In a country where agricultural productivity and food security are vital issues, agri-biotechnology holds great promise. We need to regulate its application, not allow it to be strangled by misconceived or motivated campaigns.

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