Safety first: India gives Monsanto a moratorium

Feature story - February 10, 2010
Following nationwide protests against the introduction of India's first commercial genetically engineered (GE) food crop -- the Indian government has made a giant step towards charting a path for sustainable agriculture and food security.

India's Environment Minister has made an historic decision rejecting GE that will have a ripple effect across the world.

When India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) approved the crop back in October, without proper tests, there was national outrage among independent scientists, consumers, farmers and civil society groups. India's Environment Minister has now made a very welcomed decision to impose a moratorium on Mahyco (co-owned by agrochemical giant Monsanto) Bt brinjal and to protect Indian agriculture.

Brinjal is the Indian name for aubergine (or eggplant). India is acentre of diversity for this crop and the largest producer ofaubergines in the world -- growing more than 4,000 varieties.

Just say no

In a series of seven public consultations across the country this year, Monsanto's attempt to commercialise their GE version of this staple food was met with a resounding "No!". Even the former Monsanto India Managing Director Mr. Jagdishan expressed his opposition to GE crop as many scientists called for a full ban.

The decision is responsible to science and responsive to society. Public sentiment is negative. It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary principle-based approach.

Environment Minister Mr. Jairam Ramesh

Although this mandate is only related to Bt Brinjal - there is now clear potential to stop all GE crops in India. The BBC's Geeta Pandey, who was at the news conference in Delhi, says Mr Ramesh's decision has put any cultivation of GE vegetables in India on hold indefinitely. This also sets a good precedent for many other countries on the brink of approving dangerous GE crops.

When voices rise

Consumers, farmers, youth and scientists in Bangalore observed a day of fasting expressing their unwillingness to accept Bt Brinjal. Activists, dressed in Brinjal costumes and carrying placards, showed up at public consultation meeting in Hyderbad. In Kolkata, scientists, activists, farmers and representatives of agricultural labour unions expressed the need for a national ban after deliberating on the potential impacts of GE crops on the environment, agriculture and livelihoods of farmers in West Bengal.

In Chandigarh, a majority, which inucluded farmers, scientists, NGOs and other groups, said 'No To Bt Brinjal'. In Nagpur, people poured into the public meeting from 6am in the morning to participate in the consultation. Everyone wanted to express their views and be part of one of the historic events in agriculture in the country.

The Minister gave the following reasons for a moratorium:

  • The science behind Monsanto's Bt Brinjal is inadequate to answer the concerns raised.
  • India is a centre of origin of Brinjal, thereby in principle agreeing to no GM crops in centres of Origin.
  • The regulatory system is inadequate.

A long term solution

Greenpeace has been calling for a complete halt on the commercialisation of GE crops in India and across the world. India must now ensure that the moratorium will not lead to a back door entry of Bt brinjal or the 41 other food crops which are in different stages of trial in the country.

Stringent monitoring measures should be immediately put in place to ensure that GE crops are not released into the environment. And a strong message needs to be sent out to GE developers by making themliable for any accidental or illegal introductions.

Genetic engineering is a threat to food security, especially in a changing climate.GE crops have repeatedly failed under extreme weather conditions, and some GE plants yield consistently less than their natural counterparts. The best insurance policy against climate change and erratic weather conditions is ecological farming that includes natural genetic diversity of food crops.

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