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[NEW DELHI] India will not cultivate genetically modified (GM) eggplant — brinjal or aubergine — until the public and scientists are convinced it is safe, the country's environment minister announced today (9 February).

Jairam Ramesh said that the moratorium, the length of which has not been specified, is not a deferred acceptance but an opportunity to establish an independent regulatory authority to carry out its own safety testing.

India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), under the country's environment ministry, cleared the GM eggplant for commercial cultivation last October (see Indian regulator endorses first GM vegetable) but the final decision was referred to the government.

Ramesh decided to throw the issue open to public consultation after scientists and activists expressed concern about the decision, arguing that safety trials had not been conducted in a transparent manner.

The eggplant — which would have been the country's first GM vegetable — was developed by Indian seed company Mahyco in collaboration with the agricultural technology company Monsanto.

It contains a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which makes crops resistant to the devastating shoot borer pest.

"It is my duty to … impose a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal till such time as 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 environment," Ramesh told the media today.

Ramesh said he took on board concerns expressed by molecular biologist Pushpa Mohan Bhargava and Indian crop expert M. S. Swaminathan as well as public protests and decisions by ten state governments to ban cultivation even if approved. These states include Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat which were among the first to introduce Monsanto's GM cotton in 2002.

Critics of the October decision had included Swaminathan who told media last month that "there should be an independent authority to analyse risks and benefits in a transparent manner, but unfortunately we don't have an authority like that".

Bhargava, who was appointed by India's Supreme Court to monitor the trials, had dissociated himself from the GEAC clearance, saying it was not unanimous.

Bhargava told SciDev.Net after today's announcement: "It is a step in the right direction and a courageous decision. It will help India first set its regulatory house in order. An independent regulatory authority for GM crops is a must and the country should now work on this".

But Govindarajan Padmanabhan, former director of the Indian Institute of Science — writing in yesterday's Indian Express before the decision — said the government's public consultation "risks drowning out the measured voice of real scientists".

Padmanabhan said the Bt protein would be degraded both during cooking and by acids produced by the stomach during digestion.

Link to Indian government report on moratorium