Ananya Dutta

KOLKATA: Protests by a number of organisations marked the first of seven public consultative meetings on introduction of Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation attended by Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh here on Wednesday.

Though some scientists and a few farmers did speak in favour of commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal, most of the speakers were against it.

“I am not an agent of Monsanto, although that allegation has been levelled against me,” Mr. Ramesh said, adding that if it were so he would have cleared commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal as soon as it was cleared by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) on October 14.

Several demonstrators, who were denied entry into the hall at Bose Institute where the meeting was being held, continued protests outside the hall through the four hours. Mr. Ramesh stepped out to meet the protesters and pacify them after the meeting.

‘No decision yet’

“So far only the GEAC has given clearance to Bt brinjal. The government is yet to take a decision on the matter,” he assured them. A decision would be taken after the public consultative meetings in Kolkata, Bhubaneswar, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Nagpur and Chandigarh. They would be held during the month and representations from all groups concerned would be considered, he added. Once the consultations are over, a decision would be taken by mid-February.

The meeting itself was disrupted twice with a few farmers’ groups vociferously challenging the comments made in favour of Bt brinjal by two scientists.

Concerns about introduction of Bt brinjal were raised on several grounds – agricultural, environmental, health aspects as well as animal husbandry.

Concern

While the threat to biodiversity and the possibility of depletion of nearly 2,000 indigenous varieties of brinjal was an overriding concern, experts and representatives of farmers were also worried about reports that the Bt brinjal plant has lower tolerance of adverse climatic conditions and growing it results in loss of soil fertility.

Introduction of the crop in a State like West Bengal will be difficult as most small and marginal farmers will not be able to maintain isolation distances of 30 meters.

Reservations over the health aspects of the genetically modified vegetable were also raised. Reports about the antibiotic resistance, lower calorific value of the Bt brinjal as compared to other varieties and gastronomic ailments were cited and demands for an “independent assessment” of its impact on health were made.