widely expected, the government has imposed a moratorium on the
introduction of India's first genetically modified (GM) food
crop, a Bt brinjal hybrid, developed by Maharashtra Hybrid Seed
Company(Mahyco). Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, made the public
announcement about the move to put on hold the commercial approval
granted to Mahyco's Bt brinjal hybrid, using a cry1Ac gene
extracted from a soil bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis, to induce
resistance to a major pest, foot and stem borer which damages more than
40 of the crop by its attacks.
This decision on moratorium, after the pathbreaking approval granted to
it by the biotech regulator, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee
(GEAC), on October 14, 2009, has sent shock waves through the industry
and jubilation among the anti-GM coalition of civil society groups.
While announcing his decision on February 9, 2010, Jairam Ramesh said,
“It is my duty to adopt a precautionary principle-based
approach and impose a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal 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
It has been clarified that the current moratorium is only on this
specific Bt brinjal hybrid and not on the GM food technology itself.
Ongoing trials and research work on various GM crops could
continue, the minister clarified.
The minister faced strong opposition from his Cabinet colleagues
handling science and technology, agriculture and other senior members.
So the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh was forced to intervene and
convene a meeting of these warring ministers and nudge them towards a
consensus. This important meeting was held on February 24, 2010.
The meeting could not resolve the issue amicably. However, it gave a
lease of life to the long pending legislation to set up the National
Biotechnology Regulatory Authority (NBRA).
A statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) after
the February 24 meeting said: “It was agreed that
biotechnology is an important option for higher agricultural
productivity and ensuring food security. At the same time, we must
ensure that it has no adverse effects on human and animal health and
“Keeping this in mind, the government will soon be moving
forward in setting up a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority,
which will inspire confidence and stimulate public and private
investment in biotechnology,” the PMO statement said.
The meeting came after the issue on Bt brinjal moratorium was raised by
the Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar who had written to the
Prime Minister, earlier this month. Pawar had written that moratorium
had 'confused' the scientific community and the
private sector about the status of biotechnology in food security and
about the deciding authority.
The statement issued by PMO also clarified that the Genetic Engineering
Approval Committee (GEAC), would continue to remain as the body to
address concerns for resolving all scientific issues relating to Bt
brinjal including safety aspects. The meeting also stressed
the need to create confidence amongst states about the role of
biotechnology in food security.
The proposal to set up NBRA was mooted in 2004 based on the reports of
two task forces on biopharma (headed by Dr RA Mashelkar) and
bioagriculture ( Dr MS Swaminathan). However, the draft legislation has
been circulating within the government for over five years due to lack
of consensus between the various ministries and regulators involved in
Now, with the Prime Minister's public statements, the NBRA
bill is likely to get a smoother passage within the government. In
early February, the NBRA bill was referred by the Cabinet Secretary to
a committee of secretaries (COS) for the final word.
According to Dr MK Bhan, secretary, Department of Biotechnology, the
draft bill will be ready to be sent to the Cabinet for approval. The
long wait for NBRA bill could finally be over.
“The real losers are not just scientists who were responsibly
for developing technology for the last many years, but actually farmers
who could have enormously benefited from this technology. The
Environment Minister has given himself to sentiments rather than
science and scientific logic”
- KK Narayanan, managing director, Metahelix Life Sciences
“I wanted a moratorium on all GM crops for the next 5-8 years
till the time there is reliable scientific data from the Indian
scientific community – so that has happened. Now a network of
indigenous labs should be set up where the technology should be tested
on our home conditions”
- Dr PM Bhargava, independent observer appointed by the
Supreme Court to the GEAC
“We need a regulatory mechanism that inspires data
confidence. There are concerns about whether all tests have been done,
and whether there has been an independent verification of results
submitted by a company. In food items of life-long consumption, chronic
toxicity tests should be conducted on animals. There is need for a
regulatory body with independent facilities for testing”
- Dr MS Swaminathan, eminent agriculture scientist
“We are not against the use of genetically modified
technology to improve crop yields. But we oppose the introduction of Bt
- Sunita Narain, director, Center for Science and Environment