Despite the economic gloom around the world, India managed to emerge
in 2009 with the growth close to seven percent in what has arguably the
worst year in our recent memory. The biotechnology industry too managed
to weather the storm and stay afloat with very little collateral
However, as I write this 7th anniversary issue special edit of
BioSpectrum, the mood seems to have turned sullen at least for a
section of the industry. The Bt brinjal developed by Mahyco is at the
heart of the gathering gloom which has turned enormous public attention
on biotechnology as a whole unwittingly.
As I had predicted and was widely expected in my previous editorial,
Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has brought the Bt brinjal story to
a halt for now. The hurriedly convened press conference on February 9
and the subsequent clarifications told the story. No hurried decision
on commercialization of Mahyco's Bt brinjal hybrid for now.
The moratorium will be in place till the regulatory system is in a
position to evaluate credible, independent data on toxicity aspects of
Bt brinjal. At the same time the government has helpfully clarified
that there is no moratorium on genetically modified (GM) foods per se
but only on this particular product under regulatory process.
The fate of Bt brinjal was sealed by two key developments.
One, Jairam Ramesh's decision to go on a nationwide
consultation process in January and February 2010. The 8-city event
gave the right high profile platform needed by anti-GM forces to make
themselves heard. The industry and the few scientists willing to stand
up for GM foods could not match the support drummed by civil society
groups with a combination of rhetoric, emotions and folklore. Two, the
strident voices for caution expressed two eminent geneticists, Dr MS
Swaminathan and Dr PM Bhargava. These two factors were a potent anti-GM
combination which Jairam Ramesh, even if he had wanted, could not have
overcome to allow Bt brinjal for now.
One is not sure how Mahyco's Bt brinjal will play out in the
coming months or years. Either it could get commercial approval quietly
or delayed for a few years till independent studies are ready. If
latter is the case, then the wait could be easily for a few years. A
quiet commercial release appears unlikely given the range of civil
society forces ranged against the product in particular and GM foods
overall. And the anti-GM forces would be keeping a hawk's eye
on all related developments about this product.
However, there is a silver lining amidst the dark clouds gathering over
the biotech sector, particularly due to the agri-biotech segment. The
long pending legislation to set up a unified regulator in the form of
the National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA) has got a
fillip. The Prime Minister's support to speed up its passage
will help to overcome the hurdles within the government which had
stymied its progress since 2005.
The bill was stuck apparently due to the tussle between the ministers
(ministries) of S&T and Agriculture in the UPA-1 government.
DBT secretary Dr MK Bhan is hopeful of tying up the loose ends and
sending it for Cabinet approval in March. Then the bill will be placed
before Parliament for debate and approval. Even here, some sections of
the current draft bill related to steps to tone down anti-GM opposing
voices have run into a public controversy. Here again the
main opposition to the NBRA bill coming in due to the clauses related
to GM products. It is again now anybody's guess how the
NBRA's passage through Parliament amidst these tumultuous
developments in the backdrop of Bt brinjal controversy will happen.