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February 10, 2010


Bt, Interrupted; Passed Science, But Failed Politics; We Eat GM Food Now. Why Not Grow It?; Italian Court Gives GM Go-ahead


* India Shelves GM Food Crop Plans - While Millions Remain Malnourished
* Brinjal Blots Ramesh's Copybook
* India Says "No" to Bt Brinjal for Now
* Full text of the Indian Minister of Environment
* We Eat GM Food Now. Why Not Grow It?
* Agitation Against Bt Brinjal Was Well-Orchestrated: Monsanto Official
* Research on GM Crops May Slow Down
* India Rejects First GM Vegetable, Hampering Monsanto
* Italian Court Gives GM Go-ahead
* Plant Biology 2010: Bringing together the global community of plant biologists
* Bt-Brinjal - Not A Threat to Native Varieties and Safety

Bt, Interrupted

- Editorial, The Indian Express, Feb 10, 2010 a

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh's decision to advance the government's verdict on the commercial release of Bt brinjal to Tuesday evening was as abrupt as it was baffling. There would be a moratorium on the release of Bt brinjal, he said a day ahead of schedule.

The announcement capped weeks of fractious public "consultations" in which a familiar array of sceptics held the stage. It also comes upon remarkably unambiguous obstruction by state governments, which argued that trials to assess the genetically modified crop's effect on health and ecology had not been conclusive enough. At the snap press conference called on Tuesday evening, Ramesh appeared to heed this caution.

"There is no over-riding urgency to introduce it (Bt brinjal)," he said. "When the public sentiments have been negative, it is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary and principle-based approach." The decision, he added, would be on hold till "independent scientific studies" settled the questions about safety.

Given the rocky experience with genetically modified crops, especially food, this seemingly reasonable approach is nothing but obfuscation. Public sentiment is an odd input to a decision that must be purely scientific. By invoking it, the minister abdicates his responsibility to carry forward the clearance process on the basis of fact, not hypothesis.

And the facts are as follows: in October, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee had cleared the commercial release of Bt brinjal. The GEAC is constituted in the ministry of environment and forests, and its clearance is supposed to abide by the highest degree of caution. Ramesh's office puts the onus on him to detail exactly why the committee's clearance has been so summarily sacrificed at the altar of "public sentiments".

By playing to the gallery, Ramesh has not only withheld from the farmer an option that could increase productivity and drastically cut pesticide use. He has also undermined the institutional mechanism that has sustained this country's cautious introduction of GM seeds like cotton and that is in the process of clearing other food crops like rice, okra and tomato.

Unless there is a quick course correction, the Bt brinjal embargo could retard the pace of the "second green revolution" promised through the development, trials and introduction of GM varieties of crops to enhance productivity and cut the use of water and pesticides, as the case may be. It would be most unfortunate if policy decisions were to be exposed to a miasma of conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated fear-mongering.


It Passed Science, But Failed Politics

- Joseph Vackayil, Financial Express (India), Feb. 9, 2010 http://www.financialexpress.com/

The judgement day for the pest-resistant genetically modified Bt brinjal technology finally arrived on Tuesday. The minister for environment decided that Bt brinjal must wait longer before it can reach the Indian farmer-farmers are already struggling to grow brinjal, fighting what is often a losing battle with pests using huge quantities of pesticides.

The technology, it seems, has been kept in cold storage, owing more to mass frenzy than scientific reasons. The basic science is clear-the insertion of Cry1Ac gene of the soil bacterium bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to the genome of brinjal will be expressed when bitten and ingested by the target pest. The pest dies not by the toxicity of the Bt but by the gum-like action of the ingested Bt that chokes the worm to death.

The process of getting Bt brinjal to farms had progressed quite far. The inventors of the technology had already given it out to public sector universities for the development of select varieties in different regions of the country. The final approval for public release had been given by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), a top-notch scientific body. But the power to finally release Bt brinjal for commercial cultivation was given to the government, and the government has unfortunately decided to stop it.

Some of the political parties had called for Prime Minister's intervention to ban Bt brinjal. A public interest litigation has been filed in the Madras High Court against GEAC's approval for the release of Bt brinjal. Over ten state governments, ruled by the entire spectrum of political parties, recently banned it without even waiting for the Centre's decision.

As a run-up to the government's decision on Bt brinjal, during the last few weeks, the Union environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, held public hearings in different parts of the country. The public hearings turned out to be public outbursts to 'crucify' Bt brinjal, many not even knowing what it really is. The call to outcast the new brinjal has come from all quarters, from cine artists, politicians, NGOs, scientists, farmer organisations, organic farmer groups and Siddha practitioners. The list is endless. The irony is that the real farmer, the one who is to take the seed, sow it and nurture it, is a silent spectator to all these dramatic developments. He is silent because he does not know.

At an institutional level, the foundation of opposition to Bt brinjal was laid by PM Bhargava, who was installed in the GEAC on the directive of the Supreme Court. Bhargava opposed the public release of the Bt brinjal until more detailed, independent studies and risk assessments were made. MS Swaminathan also suggested the same. He has said that the government should not be in a hurry to introduce Bt brinjal "until fundamental issues were addressed." In a recent statement to the media, he said that every technology has its benefits and risks. But the important factor is the ability to analyse the risks and benefits and find which outweights. Swaminathan says that if farmers choose to cultivate only the Bt variety, for its benefits, the multitudes of other varieties may become extinct. Why this is necessarily bad over the long term from either the producer or consumer point of view is not clear.

The environment minister seemingly echoed the views of some sceptical scientists when he said that more studies are needed to investigate the long-term health effects (on humans) of Bt brinjal. So far, a number of studies have already shown that there is no adverse effect to human health. On the other hand, the long-term effects on human health of pesticides used in the cultivation of regular brinjal are well known.

Science aside, even the opposition based on socio-economic factors is unfounded. Contrary to what many activists claim, Bt brinjal, in itself, will not lead to multinational hegemony or control. Scientists in agricultural universities in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, who have developed the native Bt brinjal varieties, have confirmed that farmers can save the seeds of Bt brinjal and plant the crop without paying any royalty to anybody. There is no control over the seeds by any outside agency or company. The Bt brinjal seeds in the marketplace would be under the control of public sector institutions and the price will be controlled.

Any blanket 'no' to science and genetic engineering is a risky game. Now, almost 70% of brinjal cultivated by spraying gallons of pesticides is lost to the pests. If this situation continues for another 20 years, no farmer will be willing to cultivate brinjal as he would not be able to retrieve anything marketable. A viable technology to control pests without pesticides has to be developed, not just for brinjal but for almost every crop on which mankind depends. GM is the best way to ensure an adequate supply of pesticide-free food at reasonable prices-GM crops have much better yields.

It is unfortunate that public sentiment is being moulded by rumours and assumptions and not science.


India Shelves GM Food Crop Plans - While Millions Remain Malnourished

- Will Heaven, Daily Telegraph, Feb 9, 2010 http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/

India has dropped plans to release the country's first genetically modified food crop, Dean Nelson reports, because of fears over "the long-term effects on human health". This appalling decision was taken by the environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, who said the following:

There is no overriding urgency to introduce it When the public sentiments have been negative, it is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary and principle-based approach. I will not impose a decision till such time independent scientific studies establish safety of the product from long-term view of human health.

No urgency to introduce a GM food crop? How about the fact that India has some of the highest rates of child malnutrition and mortality in under-fives in the world? Or the fact that malnutrition has been found to be worse in India than it is in sub-Saharan Africa?

It is wrong, of course, to assume that child malnutrition is solely caused by food insecurity. A recent 2006 World Bank report into India's "persistent malnutrition" found that "child malnutrition is mostly the result of high levels of exposure to infection and inappropriate infant and young child feeding and caring practices."

But food security remains a highly important factor, and the chance to develop a more pest-resistant food crop should have been pounced on by the Indian government. As the BBC reports, the proposed GM aubergine had been tested by India's genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC), which approved the crop and found that it was resistant against "fruit and shoot borer pest". It's good for the environment, too, as the number of pesticides used can be dramatically reduced.

Dr PM Salimath, the scientist at the University of Agriculture Sciences in Dharwad, Karnataka, who was in charge of the trials, told the BBC: "There's hardly any danger to human health. This gene is used in corn, canola and soya for the past decade or more, and it's shown that it is totally safe." But campaigners have been using scare tactics to encourage an anti-GM campaign. "We are not guinea pigs - don't use us for research," one activist is reported to have said, adding the old lie that GM crops could cause cancer.

This is, sadly, all too familiar in India. I've written before about how the introduction of GM cotton to India in 2002 was a huge success. But higher crop yields and reduced pesticide use won't silence the conspiracy theorists, who have wrongly blamed GM cotton for high rates of farmer suicides - and even drought.

It would have taken only a little bravery from India's environment minister to approve the GM food crop, paving the way for dozens more. This would have been good for India, good for Indians and good for the environment. How infuriating, then, that he has bowed so quickly to bad science and public pressure.
Will Heaven is a writer who specialises in politics and the internet. He also writes about Catholicism and religion.


Brinjal Blots Ramesh's Copybook

- Dhiraj Nayyar, Financial Express (India), Feb 11, 2010

Jairam Ramesh has spent the better part of his 8-plus months in office as the environment minister trying to break away from the traditionalist/conservative mould that his ministry has acquired over the years.

He committed himself to the PM's vision of the ministry not turning into an instrument of a new licence raj of permits and clearances to industry. He went even bolder on climate change, changing India's decade-old negotiating position from per capita emissions to a more reasonable emissions intensity of GDP position. In doing so, he didn't hesitate to take on opposition from within and outside the government. He even took on the once celebrated RK Pachauri on the issue of Himalayan glaciers, a battle that no one gave him a chance to win but win he eventually did.

We applauded him and admired him for all of that, which is why his decision to put an indefinite moratorium on the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal is so disappointing. It seems then that even the most forward-looking ministers of this government are in the end vulnerable to be captured by populist politics.

There is little doubt that the politics of Bt brinjal had turned against the government. The shrillest voices, those of sundry activists and NGOs, hogged the headlines. The voice of the brinjal farmer who loses half his crop to pests and the average consumer who consumes unhealthy amounts of pesticides through regular brinjal were never likely to be heard in the din. Once state governments began to ban the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal even before Jairam Ramesh had a chance to make public his decision, the political dice was loaded against the cultivation of India's first GM food crop. That some Congress-ruled states-prominently Andhra and Haryana-hopped aboard the 'ban' wagon would have put both Ramesh and the Union government under pressure.

But the business of politics is about leading, not following, about moulding public sentiment, rather than being a prisoner to perceived public sentiment. On other issues Jairam Ramesh has shown signs of leadership, but not on brinjal. And it's not that he did not have facts on his side to counter the critics-extensive scientific research over ten years (add to that the research on GM conducted overseas) had yielded no evidence of adverse effects on either the health of the soil or the health of humans; the entire process had gone through rigorous institutional assessment culminating with the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC); this was no multinational conspiracy either-the seed was developed by an Indian company (of which Monsanto held only 26% stake) in collaboration with two publicly funded universities; there was even the spectre of food inflation, particularly in vegetables, that ought to have made it easier to make a case for introducing high-yielding GM crops, something that would eventually quell prices.

Despite the facts, the government caved in. But what is perhaps more important than even the decision are the reasons given to justify it. The argument about the need to further study the long-term health effects on humans is just a stalling tactic with no real basis-this sort of logic can be used to ban cell phones (also a daily use item) where scientific evidence has varied between 'safe' and 'risky'. The minister's argument that there is no immediate hurry or need for Bt brinjal (there is sufficient production anyway) may well be right, but his decision also impacts other GM vegetables/foodgrains where there may be a more urgent need.

But the less frivolous, and more worrying, aspects of the decision are others. And both bring back memories of an era we had assumed Jairam Ramesh, and the wider government, had left well behind.

The first concerns the manner in which the decision on Bt brinjal was made. Interestingly, India already has a vigorous institutional mechanism for the clearance of GM crops. And this was put to test at the time GM cotton was given permission for commercial cultivation. At the apex of this process is the GEAC, a body with technical expertise, which is supposed to take a final decision on GM crops. In the case of Bt cotton, it was GEAC and not the minister for environment that took the decision.

By turning GEAC into an appraisal, not approval committee, Jairam Ramesh destroyed an important institutional mechanism and put all discretion into the hands of a single minister. This defeats the purpose of specialist bodies and regulators that are mandated to take decisions independent of political considerations. This subverting of institutions that sets a horrible precedent can have a spillover effect elsewhere in government too.

A second concern was the minister's blanket criticism of the research done by private sector scientists in biotechnology. Just because India's first green revolution was heralded by government scientists doesn't mean the next one also has to come from the public sector. In fact, the ongoing research into GM crops, including Bt brinjal, is a great example of public-private partnership. Why turn the clock back? And why turn it back for agriculture when other sectors are powering ahead with private sector research? The UPA, unfortunately, continues to believe that agriculture can survive with an unsatisfactory status quo.

Jairam Ramesh, though, could have, and should have, acted as an agent of change.


India Says "No" to Bt Brinjal for Now

- Narayanan Suresh, BioSpectrum, Feb 10, 2010 http://www.biospectrumasia.com/

India will not get its first genetically modified (GM) food for at least in 2010. In a major decision, overruling a regulatory approval, Indian government has decided not to permit commercial cultivation of the country's first GM food product, a Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) brinjal (aubergine) variety, developed by global agri giant Monsanto's Indian partner, Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco).

India's minister for environment, Mr Jairam Ramesh, advanced his date with the decision on Bt brinjal by 24 hours and announced on Tuesday that Bt brinjal will not be released in the farms at least for another six months.

The environment ministry is likely to announce this decision in the Supreme Court of India on February 10, which is hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) against the introduction of the Mahyco-developed Bt brijal hybrid, which incorporates a Cry1Ac gene derived from a soil bacterium, Bt.

"My decision is the best interest of science and public interest," said the minister after pouring over the overwhelming number of representations received from anti-GM groups from across the country during his seven public consultations held across the country in the last four weeks.

"There is no unanimity even among the scientific community," justified the minister, even after the biotech regulator, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), in the environment ministry had voted overwhelmingly on October 14, 2009, to allow commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal hybrids of Mahyco.

The India Edition of BioSpectrum, in its February 2010 issue had predicted that the government may not permit the cultivation of Bt brinjal for now even though the regulatory approval has been given to it.

There has been intense pressure on the issue within the government with the agriculture minister, Mr Sharad Pawar, and minister for science and technology, Mr Prithviraj Chavan, batting for Bt brinjal. Mr Ramesh tried to go over GEAC by announcing a national public consultation, within days of regulatory approval. The environment minister heard the views of over 8,000 people in seven cities, with anti-GM activists led by civil society groups, farmer associations strongly opposing the introduction of Bt brinjal.

The environment minister's hand was also forced by the announcement of at least eight state governments, which together account for over 70 percent of brinjal production, to ban cultivation of GM food crops in their areas.

India grows over eight million tonnes of brinjal annually and is the second largest grower of this vegetable in the world after China. The annual market for brinjal is estimated to be around Rs 8,000 crore ( $1.8 billion) and nearly 40 percent of the crop is lost due to attack by a major pest, Fruit and Shoot Borer. The Bt variety would have offered resistance and killed this major pest.


Full text of the Indian Minister of Environment

Bt Brinjal: Note by Ministry of Environment and Forests



"I can't understand why it is easier for some people to avoid the kilos of evidence which contradict their views in a search for the fragmentary gram which they can hold up as proving their 'truth'." - Cameron Wesson

(Thanks Wayne!


We Eat GM Food Now. Why Not Grow It?

- Ross Clark, The Times (UK and ROI) February 10, 2010 http://www.timesonline.co.uk

'Britain is missing out on a vital new technology by letting Luddites make all the running'

The sight of Indian environmentalists dressed as aubergines to protest about a GM version of that vegetable has brought heart to the Luddite tendency in Britain. Introduction of the plant was delayed by the Indian Government yesterday, but it should still come as a wake-up call that India has got as far as developing its own GM crops.
Other countries are taking the lead in a growing and inevitable technology which Britain could, and should, have been leading.

Fourteen years ago we were at the forefront of GM technology, not just in the science, but in developing procedures to ensure the environmental and medical safety of new crops. Then came the campaign against "Frankenstein foods", culminating in protesters dressed in radioactive suits and trampling down trial crops. Unlike

Luddite campaigns against threshing machines and spinning jennies, this was allowed to succeed. Disgracefully, on several occasions magistrates cleared protesters of criminal damage and aggravated trespass. GM research all but ground to a halt and commercial production never started.

It is different elsewhere in the world, where commercial production of GM crops is commonplace. Worldwide, 125 million hectares of land were cultivated with commercial GM crops in 2008. Environmentalists who believe that Britain remains a GM-free zone are deluded. Two thirds of soya imported to Britain is GM. Given that soya is a staple ingredient of many processed foods, most of us have been happily eating large quantities of GM foods for more than a decade without growing three heads or apparently suffering any other harm. We are only "pure" in the sense that we are not making any money out of GM crops.

Fears about GM are, and always have been, irrational. The "Frankenstein foods" campaign was sparked by a trial at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, one of dozens then under way, that claimed that GM potatoes damaged the immune systems of laboratory rats. The research was later assessed by the Royal Institute as "flawed", but even if it had been scientifically valid it would not have constituted an argument against GM foods per se, but would merely have indicated that a particular strain of GM potato should not be introduced to the diet. Every GM crop is chemically unique and if one turns out to be injurious to health that is no reflection on the rest.

Logically, we are safer eating GM foods than other novel foods precisely because they have been subjected to exhaustive safety tests. No such tests were conducted into the health effects of peanuts before they were introduced into the British diet, and we have since found out the hard way that they can cause a fatal allergy in a minority of consumers.

The same is true of the environmental argument against GM crops. Huge efforts are made to guard against contamination of other plants by GM crops - far beyond anything done with oilseed rape or any other conventional crop introduced into Britain. Regarding the oft-repeated fear of cross-pollination of GM crops with native weeds to create "superweeds", genetic modification offers the solution as well as the problem: plants are increasingly engineered to be sterile, thus preventing any pollination. Admittedly, the engineering of sterile food crops has been inspired as much by the desire of agribusiness to force farmers to buy new seeds every year - potentially damaging to farmers in developing countries who risk becoming reliant on seeds that they might later be unable to afford. But that is an issue for competition law; it is not an argument against GM technology in itself.

The world will steadily turn to GM crops with or without us, because the case for them is so compelling. Not every GM crop will be a success, but the technology offers a short cut to the process of crop improvement that has been going on for centuries by means of selective breeding. So far, world food production has managed to keep up with population growth: in fact, 29 per cent more food per head is grown now than in 1961. Partly this is down to an 11 per cent increase in land used for agricultural purposes, but more particularly it is because of an explosion in the use of pesticides and fertilisers.

All three of these - increased use of land, pesticide and fertiliser - have environmental consequences. Do we really want to rule out a technology that could help to preserve forests and biodiversity, and reduce nitrate pollution and soil degradation? We might not have a choice: fertiliser production requires the mining of large amounts of phosphates, and reserves could be exhausted within 100 years.

I will make three predictions. First, that in 50 years' time most of the world, most of the time, will consume GM crops. Second, that conventional crops will by then be grown only as "heritage" food for fussy and wealthy consumers - the comestible equivalent of Farrow & Ball paint. And third, that unless we quickly recognise this and take the argument to the anti-GM protesters who have been allowed to monopolise the debate, Britain's agribusiness will have disappeared entirely abroad, leaving us a poorer country.


Agitation Against Bt Brinjal Was Well-Orchestrated: Monsanto Official

- PTI, February 9, 2010

Bangalore: A former senior Monsanto official today said he wasn't surprised by the government's moratorium on commercial cultivation of Bt Brinjal, noting that the agitation against the genetically-modified variety of the vegetable was "well-orchestrated, loud and united".

"I am not surprised by the decision of the environment minister," former head of city-based Monsanto Research Centre TM Manjunath told PTI. "The agitation against Bt Brinjal was so demonstrative, well-orchestrated, loud and united as compared to lacklustre and hesitant efforts by most of the protagonists," he said.

A US-based multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation, Monsanto is the leading producer of genetically engineered (GE) seed. It introduced genetically modified cotton in India in 2002. Manjunath said if the industry and scientists had put in more efforts towards creating awareness about the safety and benefits of the biotech products, the impact would have been different.

According to him, the Bt gene, cryIAC, that has been deployed in Bt Brinjal is almost the same as in Bt cotton that had earlier undergone and satisfied extensive biosafety tests as per international standards in several countries such as the USA, Argentina, Australia, China as well as India.

"Bt cotton has been under commercial cultivation on millions of acres year after year since its regulatory approval in the USA and other countries since 1996 and in India since 2002," he said.

Bt cotton has not caused any scientifically proven adverse effects on humans, animals or environment, Manjunath said. "Bt Brinjal was also subjected to similar tests for 8-9 years in India and found to be safe by Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC)," he said. "It is difficult to understand what further tests will be prescribed, who will conduct it and how". In case the new tests reveal that Bt brinjal is safe, the opponents should give an undertaking that they would gracefully accept the result and stop their agitations against any further Bt crops, Manjunath said.

Meanwhile, former president of Association of Biotech-Led Enterprises and managing director of Metahelix Life Sciences, KK Narayanan, termed the Government decision as "unfortunate". "The real losers are not just scientists who were responsibly developing technology for the last many years, but actually farmers who could have enormously benefited," he said.

"The environment minister Jairam Ramesh has given himself to sentiments rather than science and scientific logic," Narayanan said. "He has buckled under political pressure rather than seeing scientific reasoning".


Research on GM Crops May Slow Down

- Sharath S. Srivatsa, The Hindu, Feb 10, 2010 http://www.hindu.com/

'Our scientists are feeling a bit low about the decision' - UAS among institutions involved in Bt brinjal project

Bangalore: Transgenic research on food crops currently under way at the University of Agriculture Sciences (UAS), Dharwad, is likely to slow down following the announcement by Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh on Tuesday putting on hold the commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal for the time being

Currently, pigeon pea, tomato and groundnut are in various stages of transgenic research in the university. "There is no point in continuing the research until a clear policy on genetically modified food crops is announced by the Union Government," a top scientist in the UAS told Hindu. Rather, the scientist pointed out, the university will_The concentrate on other areas of biotechnology that are non-controversial.

In Karnataka, apart from the UAS, Dharwad, transgenic research is being conducted on cotton, groundnut and maize in the UAS, Bangalore, and on tomato, chilli, brinjal and banana in Indian Institute of Horticulture Research (IIHR), Bangalore.

"It is a temporary halt, which can be revived later if we continue on a lower scale now," the scientist said. "Our scientists are feeling a bit low about the decision. But we have to take it in our stride," he said. The UAS, Dharwad, is among the institutions involved in the Bt brinjal project that cost about Rs. 50 lakh over a period of four to five years.

"We (scientists) are disappointed at the outcome. However, we will continue with our research," said C. Aswath, Head of the Biotechnology Division at the IIHR where genetically modified food crops are being developed.

Meanwhile, the Karnataka Horticulture Minister Umesh Katti said, "It is a good decision and we welcome it. Farmers should not be burdened with any form of genetically modified food technology."

Member of the State Organic Farming Mission Vivek Cariappa said that though the decision was laudable, it did not give any timeframe. "We do not know what the Ministry is looking for. The decision is not clear and is very ambiguous." Krishnaprasad of Sahaja Samruddha, a member of GM Free India, said, "The Government should ban all experiments on GM food crops in India."


India Rejects First GM Vegetable, Hampering Monsanto

- Jay Shankar and Thomas Kutty Abraham, Bloomberg via Businessweek, Feb. 10, 2010 ttp://www.businessweek.com/

India's government rejected the nation's first genetically modified food after protests by farmers, hampering the expansion of seed makers including Monsanto Co. in the world's second-most populous nation.

"There is no overriding food security argument for Bt brinjal," or genetically modified eggplant, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said at a press conference in the capital, New Delhi, yesterday. "Our objective is to restore public confidence and trust in Bt brinjal." A moratorium will be imposed until safety studies are carried out "to the satisfaction of the scientific community," he said.

Ramesh, 55, had to balance the technology's promise to help feed a nation growing by 18 million people a year, more than the population of the Netherlands, and concern that food safety and threats to biodiversity haven't been investigated. Monsanto, the world's largest seed maker, supplied the gene for the vegetable and introduced genetically modified cotton in India in 2002.

"This will delay the government's plan to tackle food security," said M. Khadi Basavaraj, dean at the University of Agricultural Science in the southern city of Dharwad, who advised an independent panel which passed transgenic brinjal as safe in October. "It now feels there were not enough tests to prove it's safe. The government has taken the right decision."

To gauge the nation's mood, Ramesh held seven public meetings in major cities. "I cannot ignore public opinion and I can't ignore science," the minister said after four hours of debate with farmers, scientists and environmental activists in Bangalore on Feb. 6.

Pest Protection
The brinjal, or aubergine, had been genetically modified by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company Ltd., known as Mahyco, in which St. Louis-based Monsanto has a 26 percent stake. Shares of Monsanto India Ltd. fell as much as 7.5 percent today in Mumbai, and traded down 4.3 percent at 10.12 a.m. A gene known as cry1Ac from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, and sourced from Monsanto has been introduced to help it fend off common borer pests.

Monsanto spokesman Christopher Samuel yesterday referred calls to the Mumbai-based seed maker. Maharashtra Hybrid said in a statement it respected Ramesh's decision and will follow the government's directives. "Mahyco is confident that sound science based on evidence obtained over nine years of rigorous testing will prevail," the company said. Brinjal is a staple that India also exports to the U.K., France, Germany, Hong Kong, and Canada, according to the National Horticulture Board.

Cotton Success
"While we feel relieved that Bt Brinjal will not be on our plates right away we feel that we also lost a chance to change the paradigm of agriculture in this country," Rajesh Krishnan, who campaigns against genetic engineering for pressure group Greenpeace said in an interview from Bangalore.

India's farm ministry wants GM technology to be part of efforts to raise production of staple foods, following the success of transgenic cotton introduced in 2002. GM cotton, including that of Monsanto's Bollgard varieties, now accounts for 80 percent of planting and had doubled yields by 2008. India moved from a net importer to the world's No. 2 producer and exporter.

The success of Bt cotton shows Indian farmers "are not opposed to new technologies," M.K. Sharma, Maharashtra Hybrid's general manager, said in Feb. 3 interview.

Pesticide Risks
With existing varieties of brinjal, Indian farmers have to spray pesticide on as many as 80 days in the six-month crop cycle, Sharma, said in Mumbai. Larvae that bore into plants wipe out as much as 70 percent of yield, he said. "Alongside these losses, there is also the problem of health risks as farmers use pesticides without precautions or masks," said Sharma.

Farm Secretary T. Nanda Kumar said before the announcement that GM is just one technology that India can apply to increase food security. "It could be the technology of better seeds, it could be the technology of using less water," he said in interview in New Delhi. "Ultimately it's going to be combination of all these."

GM plants "are studied much more extensively than any other plant product in the world, and provide equal or greater assurance of safety," Gyanendra Shukla, Monsanto's India director, said in a statement before the decision.

While the U.S. and Canada have grown genetically modified crops like corn and soybean for years, resistance remains strong in Europe, where some countries rejected the use of crops changed to increase resistance to drought, pests or specific herbicides. Germany's BASF SE has had a GM starch potato stuck in the European Union's approval process for 14 years.

Incomes Rise
By 2015 there may be 120 different "transgenic events" in commercial crops worldwide, from 30 in 2008, said a report by the European Commission's Seville, Spain-based Institute for Prospective Technological Studies. As many as 33 may be developed in India, the report said.

While 456 million Indians live on less than $1.25 a day, according to a 2008 World Bank report, as a nation they are eating more than ever. Twenty Indian cities are projected to see household income grow 10 percent annually up to 2016, New Delhi's National Council of Applied Economic Research said.

Whether India can meet demand for food worries Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. There's a "false sense of security" that availability of food has ceased to be a concern for the South Asian nation, he said on Feb. 1.

Rising food costs accounted for 80 percent of December's inflation when wholesale prices rose an annual 7.3 percent, the fastest pace since November 2008, after the weakest monsoon rains since 1972 pushed up prices.


Italian Court Gives GM Go-ahead

- Agra Europe,February 5, 2010 http://www.agra-net.com

The highest appeals court in Italy has overturned a standing ban on the cultivation of genetically modified plants. According to Agra Europe, the highest court in Italy has instructed the Ministry of Agriculture to allow the planting of genetically modified (GM) maize. The existing ban on the cultivation of such maize thereby is lifted.
The Italian public is fundamentally inclined towards a sceptical view of genetic modification and the court move has provoked great outcry.


When will Europe's politicians listen? Europe's farmers again call for access to GM crops to meet challenge to feed the world

- EURACTIV 9 February 2010 http://pr.euractiv.com/

Brussels - The uptake of new technology such as genetic modification is the most important tool in the box to meet the challenge of nourishing a growing global population. That is the message from thousands of farmers who have recently taken part in a global poll run in 6 leading farming magazines.

The UK Farmers Weeklyand the Dutch Boerderij gave European farmers the chance to air their views on solutions to feeding the world, while votes also rushed in from their counterparts in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, USA and Canada.

The results tell their own story. With 37.1% of the total votes, new technologies and genetic modification were by far the most popular of the five presented key factors. The remaining votes were split between broader expertise through education and training (20.3%), investment in research and development (18%), removal of trade barriers (14.7%), and government intervention in food production (10%).

Commenting on the poll, Morten Nielsen, Director of Agricultural Biotech at EuropaBio said "Throughout history, farmers have used new technologies in order to meet the needs of society; these results show that things are no different today. Food security and climate change will be two of the major challenges that the world will face in the 21st century. This will require significant changes in how we produce food and while policy makers can play a part, at the end of the day farmers need practical solutions to practical problems. This poll reinforces the message from many European farmers who have been calling for access to GM crops for several years<#_edn2>[ii]."

Currently, 13.3 million farmers around the world are cultivating a range of GM crops on 125 million hectares of land<#_edn3>[iii]. Many more GM products are in the pipeline, including crops that can tolerate extreme weather conditions such as drought and flooding. In Europe however only one GM crop, an insect-resistant maize, has been authorized for cultivation, with many more blocked in the EU regulatory system.

Morten Nielsen went on to comment "With a global population set to surpass 9 billion by 2050, combined with more extreme weather in many parts of the world, European farmers will be required to produce more, from less land, using fewer natural resources. While the rest of the world is positively embracing innovative and safe technology to achieve this, Europe's politicians are denying their farmers access to the same tools that they clearly want. This poll goes to show that the status quo has to change".


Plant Biology 2010: Bringing together the global community of plant biologists

- July 31-August 4, 2010; Montreal, Canada


Joint Annual Meeting of The American Society of Plant Biologists
and The Canadian Society of Plant Physiologists-La Société Canadienne de Physiologie Végétale

Special ASPB President's Symposium: Next Wave of Plant Biotechnology Organizer: Tuan-hua David Ho, Washington University


Bt-Brinjal - Not A Threat to Native Varieties and Safety

- T. M. Manjunath (Consultant - AgriBiotechnology & Integrated Pest Management
Bengaluru, India). AgBioView, http://www.agbioworld.org

The public hearing on Bt-brinjal conducted by the Hon'ble Minister for Environment, Mr Jairam Ramesh, at Bengaluru on Feb 6th went as expected - it was dominated by aggressive and professional agitators, too many volunteers to speak, the atmosphere was noisy and not conducive to express any scientific views and, moreover, any positive voice was insulted and shouted down! Therefore, many scientists preferred to remain silent or stayed at home. This was not unexpected. Mr Jairam Ramesh was sincere in his efforts, unbiased, showed a lot of patience and tried to maintain some discipline, but even he was provoked and made to lose his cool on a couple of occasions. Several issues were raised during the proceedings and I have made an attempt to clarify some of the misconceptions regarding Bt-brinjal.

One of the major concerns expressed by those opposing Bt-brinjal was that it is going to displace native varieties and also that it does not match some of the indigenous varieties in respect of flavour, taste, yield potential, medicinal qualities, local preferences, etc. Some went to the extent of demanding a ban on Bt-brinjal, alleging that it is a foreign variety and there is no need for it as we are self-sufficient with 'desi' varieties. There were also the other familiar accusations that it is not safe to humans, environment and biodiversity as also that seeds cannot be saved. Such statements clearly showed that there are misconceptions about Bt technology not only among some farmers and politicians which is somewhat understandable, but also among some scientists who have not updated themselves with the precise nature of this technology which is very disappointing.

Bt is only a trait, not a variety:
1. The Bt gene, cry 1Ac, incorporated in brinjal plants confers only an insecticidal trait to control Fruit-and-Shoot Borer (FSB) (Leucinodes orbonalis, Lepidoptera: Pyralidae) which is a highly destructive pest of brinjal crop irrespective of whether it is native varieties or hybrids.

2. The gene can be introduced into any desired variety or hybrid. Bt confers only an insecticidal trait in such crops and it should be clearly understood that Bt is not a variety by itself.

3. The cry protein produced by Cry1Ac is highly specific to insects belonging to the order Lepidoptera (moths and butterfly group) such as FSB and has no adverse effect on humans or animals as it does not get activated due to lack alkaline gut and specific receptors. .

4. The University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, have introduced the Bt gene, Cry1Ac, into some promising native brinjal varieties that were already developed and have been under commercial cultivation. The seeds of these can be saved by farmers and used for sowing the next crop. On the other hand, Mahyco has introduced the gene into their own hybrids. All these have undergone biosafety and agronomic trials for 8-9 years and been approved by GEAC as safe and beneficial based on scientific data. The role of the Bt gene is to empower these varieties/hybrids to protect themselves from Fruit-and-Shoot Borer (FSB) which does not spare any cultivar. It is somewhat like a vaccination therapy!

4. Since the Bt gene is introduced into the prevailing varieties, our own, there is no question of 'Bt brinjal' either adding or replacing any variety or destroying biodiversity as alleged by some. On the contrary, it contributes to better environment and conservation of beneficial organisms like honey bees, parasitoids, predators, earthworms, etc. due to significant decrease in the use of chemical insecticides. Further, Bt-brinjal plants are not imported as such as mistaken by some.

5. The action of Bt protein is specific to control FSB. Except the presence of this deliberately introduced trait, it has been proved that Bt brinjal is 'Substantially Equivalent' to its non-Bt counter part in all respects. Thus, Bt gene only contributes to strengthening a native variety or hybrid in terms of combating FSB throughout its life without any compromise on its original distinctive features such as growth, yield, taste, flavour, genetic vigour, medicinal quality, etc.

Beneficial and Safe:
7. The Fruit-and-Shoot Borer (FSB) of brinjal is an active pest throughout the crop life. Being an internal feeder during its larval period, it is difficult to control it with the prevailing methods and has been responsible for 50 to 70% marketable fruit losses inspite of repeated application (25 to 40 or more sprays) of chemical insecticides costing about Rs.6,000/- per acre during a crop season. The brinjal fruits that came to the market were found to carry high traces of insecticides.

Trials conducted with Bt brinjal have shown that it can effectively control FSB (the newly hatched larvae die within one or two days of taking the first bite of any part of Bt brinjal plant) resulting in very attractive harvests and profits with drastic reduction (80%) in the use of chemical insecticides.

8. The Bt gene, cry1Ac, that has been deployed in Bt brinjal, is almost the same as in Bt cotton that had earlier undergone and satisfied extensive biosafety tests in several countries like the USA, Argentina, Australia, China as well as India. Bt-cotton has been under commercial cultivation on million of acres year after year since its regulatory approval in the USA and other countries since 1996 and in India since 2002. Bt-cotton has not caused any scientifically proven adverse effects on humans, animals or environment. Of course, there were wild allegations about its safety by certain NGOs such as mass mortality of sheep, but those were dismissed as speculative and unsubstantiated by the experts. As of 2008, Bt-cotton was cultivated on more than 80% of 9.4 million hectares of the cotton area in India by over 5 lakh cotton farmers who readily vouch that it has brought substantial social and economic benefits to them. The same benefits are expected from Bt-brinjal and the farmers are eagerly waiting for it.

Tested and approved:
Bt-brinjal has undergone about two dozen prescribed biosafety and environmental tests involving more than 150 scientists from reputed research institutions for 8 to 9 years in India. These tests included allergenicity, toxicity, out-crossing, safety to mammals and other non-target beneficial organisms, agronomic performance, etc. It is only on being satisfied with its Expert Committee reports and recommendations, was Bt-brinjal approved in Oct 2009 as safe by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) which is the highest govt regulatory body comprising several eminent scientists in its panel. They are as much responsible and concerned about the safety of humans and environment as anyone else. Bt-brinjal is a product of high quality research in biotechnology and deserves to be approved for commercial cultivation for the benefit of our farmers.

It is worthwhile noting that Bt-cotton also faced similar opposition, but following its approval in March 2002, it has registered unprecedented adoption and success till date. Bt-brinjal will repeat the history if approved and pave the way for other biotech crops with new traits such as drought tolerance, nutritional enhancement, increased shelf-life, etc. The opponents may try to suppress or hide facts, but cannot change them!