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[NEW DELHI] India's National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) is considering unprecedented legal action against the developers of genetically modified (GM) eggplant (brinjal) for alleged violation of the country's biodiversity laws.

In February 2010, a Bangalore-based non-governmental organisation, Environment Support Group (ESG), filed a complaint with the Karnataka Biodiversity Board, a state agency, charging that developers of the eggplant, also known as Bt brinjal, had taken samples of at least ten local varieties from the two southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, without seeking permission from biodiversity authorities.

India's Bt brinjal was developed and tested by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), partially owned by US biotechnology company Monsanto, and by scientists at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.

After investigating, the Karnataka Biodiversity Board wrote to the NBA in May 2011, seeking further action.

The NBA discussed the issue in a meeting on 20 June 2011, whose minutes were made public this month (11 August). According to the minutes, "NBA may proceed legally against Mahyco/Monsanto and all others concerned to take the issue to its logical conclusion".

Mahyco and the University of Agricultural Sciences have denied any violations of biodiversity laws in their replies to the Karnataka board.

Although India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee cleared Bt brinjal for commercial growing, in February 2010 India's former environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, announced a two-year moratorium on its use to give time for its safety to be accepted by the public and scientists.

"The law mandates that, when biodiversity is to be accessed in any manner for commercial, research and other uses, local communities that have protected local varieties and cultivars for generations must be consulted and, if they consent, benefits must accrue to them as per the internationally applicable access and benefit-sharing protocol," ESG has said.

The NBA is yet to issue a legal notice, and its new chairman Balakrishna Pisupati, who took charge on 12 August and was formerly with the UN Environment Programme, told SciDev.Net that it is "collecting information and evidence".

"We are not delaying it, but we need more information to strengthen the case. And as it is the first case, we are learning lessons from it. But a decision can be expected soon," he said.

ESG trustee, Leo Saldanha, said that "what should follow is criminal prosecution as well as suspension of all applications for research".

Monsanto, which has a 26 per cent stake in Mahyco, said it would not comment on "speculative reports".

"We would also like to reiterate that reports suggesting that Bt brinjal is produced by Monsanto in partnership with Mahyco are untrue," it added.

"Monsanto would like to clarify that Bt brinjal has been indigenously developed by Indian seed and biotech company, Mahyco, with the Cry1Ac gene accessed from Monsanto, in collaboration with multiple public sector institutions."

Link to the minutes of the National Biodiversity Authority June 2011 meeting [147kB]