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India shelves GM food crop plans - while millions remain malnourished

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Will Heaven
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 Š 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.