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India Politics Delay GM Vegetable Start

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India has postponed the launch of its first genetically modified (GM) vegetable, saying it would adopt a cautious approach and wait for more scientific studies on the impact of the new variety of eggplant.

“The moratorium will be in place until all tests are carried out to the satisfaction of everyone… If that means no start of production, so be it,” Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh told reporters Feb. 9.

Until the tests are done, the country should build a broad consensus to use GM technology in agriculture in a safe and sustainable manner, he said.

The decision is seen as boosting the Congress party among its main farming vote base, much of which is fearful of GM use, and comes despite pressure from Farm Minister Sharad Pawar who supported introduction of genetically modified “BT Brinjal” or eggplant.

It also signals Congress’s leading position within the ruling coalition made up of difficult allies such as Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party. The Congress and Pawar, who also controls the food portfolio, are currently involved in a blame game over rising food prices.

“The Congress has taken one step back in the hope of taking two steps forward later,” political commentator Amulya Ganguli told Reuters.

“The government has been sensitive to public opinion and they have defused an upsurge among its farmer voters by this decision. It has more to do with politics, not any scientific reason.”

The move also marks a personal victory for Ramesh, a rising reformist minister who played a crucial role in nuancing India’s climate change stand and brokering a political accord in the December Copenhagen conference on global warming.

Ramesh conducted public debates across the country to test the support for GM food crops. Most of those meetings saw strident opposition to the idea. Most non-Congress-ruled state governments, including the major eggplant-growing areas, were opposed.

“They killed three birds with one shot. They have defused the public sentiment against them, number two is the political opposition was neutralized and three they prevailed over Sharad Pawar,” said N. Bhaskara Rao of the Centre for Media Studies.

A government panel last year supported introduction of genetically modified eggplant, but the government said it would consult experts and farmers before accepting the recommendations.

“It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary, principle-based approach,” Ramesh said.

Blow to Monsanto

The decision could come as a blow to seed producers such as Monsanto Co. looking to enter India’s huge market in GM food crops and where the company has substantial investment, including for research and development.

“Very serious fears have been raised in many quarters on the possibility of Monsanto controlling our food chain if (GM eggplant) is approved,” Ramesh said.

Advocates of genetically modified crops argue such varieties can easily increase food supply for India’s 1.2 billion people and protect farmers as GM crops can withstand adverse weather and increase output significantly.

“Nearly 1.4 million (eggplant) farmers will be deprived from (GM) technology,” said Bhagirath Choudhary of the South Asia office of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a GM advocacy group.

“This would amount to a net loss of $330 million per year to Indian brinjal farmers.”

But opponents say GM seeds can be a hazard for the environment and public health, and must be tested thoroughly before they are commercially used.

India allowed the use of genetically modified seeds for cotton in 2002, and crop productivity has increased sharply as it is now grown in 80 per cent of India’s cotton area.

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