India has this week deferred commercial cultivation of what would have been its first genetically modified (GM) food crop. Production of Bt aubergine has been put on hold while further research is done. India has grown transgenic cotton since 2002, and GM varieties now account for 80% of plantings, but aubergine would have been the first GM vegetable crop to be approved in the country.

Few topics in agriculture and food divide opinion – or arouse such debate in world trade – as much as that of genetically modified (GM) food. GM crops have been widely cultivated in the USA and now account for over 90% of soyabeans grown there, and some 85% of maize (up from 25% in 2000). A number of countries in South and Central America also grow GM crops. Europe has so far been more wary, but the UK's Chief Scientist, Professor John Beddington, gave growers and farmers at this year's Oxford Farming Conference a clear indication that Britain must embrace the technology, warning them that it is no longer possible to rely on improving crop yields through traditional methods.

"Techniques and technologies from many disciplines, ranging from biotechnology and engineering to newer fields such as nanotechnology, will be needed," he says.

GM proponents have long argued that the technology, rather than just being about increasing the profits of multinationals or allowing the use of particular agrochemicals, offers a way to produce healthier food (much GM research is now about increasing levels of nutrients or health-promoting compounds in crops), or engineer crops capable of growing in stressful conditions, and more resistant to pests and diseases. Thus, the news that India has deferred the commercial cultivation of what would have been its first GM vegetable crop is a blow to those who think that GM is a way to promote food security in Asia and Africa.

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said more studies were needed to ensure genetically modified aubergines were safe for consumers and the environment.

The GM vegetable has undergone field trials since 2008 and received approval from government scientists in 2009. But there has been a heated public row over the cultivation of the GM crop.

"Public sentiment is negative. It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary, principle-based approach," says Mr Ramesh.

But is it just the general public and pressure groups that are opposed to introduction of GM food crops in India? As it turns out, no. Some highly respected scientists have also called for delays.

MS Swaminathan, known as the "Father of the Green Revolution in India" and acclaimed by TIME magazine as one of the twenty most influential Asians of the 20th century (also, incidentally, the chair of CABI's 2004 Review Conference) says the genetically modified aubergine (known as brinjal in India) should be introduced only after analysing its short- and long-term benefits.

“Genetically modified crops are also a technology. But it all depends on our capacity to analyse risks and benefits. We must analyse whether risks are more than the benefits or the other way round,” he says, quoted by the Gulf Times.

And molecular biologist Pushpa Bhargava says that some tests on the Bt brinjal have not been carried out.

So for now at least, there will be no release of GM food crops in India until more research is done. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh says the moratorium on growing BT brinjal  would remain in place until tests were carried out "to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals".

But with the Minister saying that the decision has to be both "responsible to science and responsive to society", then as in Europe political and public opinion is likely to play as big a role in any eventual decision on release as the results of scientific research.

CAB Abstracts contains around 100 records on genetically modified brinjal (see below for a selection of the most relevent references). The CABI websites Agbiotechnet and 'Nutrition and Food Sciences' carry news and research on genetically modified crops and food.

The International Food Policy Research Institute recently published a Policy Brief arguing for a more flexible regulatory regime for biotechnology in developing countries.

Further reading

The dawn of a new era: biotech crops in India, 2009, pp ii + 34 International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), Ithaca, USA, 41 ref.

Development and bioassay of Cry1Ac-transgenic eggplant (Solanum melongena L.) resistant to shoot and fruit borer. Pal, J. K.; Singh, M.; Rai, M.; Satpathy, S.; Singh, D. V.; Kumar, S.; Journal of Horticultural Science and Biotechnology, 2009, 84, 4, pp 434-438, 22 ref.

The development and regulation of Bt Brinjal in India (Eggplant/Aubergine). Bhagirath Choudhary; Kadambini Gaur; International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), Ithaca, USA, ISAAA Briefs, 2009, 38, pp xii + 102 .

Eggplant. Rajam, M. V.; Kumar, S. V.; Pua, E. C.; Davey, M. R., Transgenic crops IV, 2007, pp 201-219, many ref.

Potential welfare benefits from the public-private partnerships: a case of genetically engineered eggplant in India. Kolady, D. E.; Lesser, W.; Journal of Food, Agriculture & Environment, 2008, 6, 3/4, pp 333-340, 30 ref.

Status of genetically engineered insect pest resistant crops and related biosafety concerns. Shashi Bhalla; Kavita Gupta; Khetarpal, R. K.; Indian Journal of Plant Protection, 2007, 35, 2, pp 220-226, 18 ref.

Is genetically engineered technology a good alternative to pesticide use: the case of GE eggplant in India. Kolady, D. E.; Lesser, W.; Bennett, R.; Shankar, B.; Srinivasan, C. S.; International Journal of Biotechnology, 2008, 10, 2/3, pp 132-147, 22 ref.

Biosafety and beyond – GM crops in India. Kavitha Kuruganti; Economic and Political Weekly, 2006, 41, 40, pp 4245-4247

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