Few countries have benefitted more from the Green Revolution than India, which in the 1960s succeeded in averting famine by introducing genetically modified strains of wheat and rice. So it's a pity to see the government backsliding on the next generation of GM foods, this time in the form of a campaign against the humble egglplant.
Environment and Forestry Minister Jairam Ramesh announced Tuesday that he would halt indefinitely the commercial cultivation of genetically modified eggplant, known locally as Bt Brinjal. He cited a need to "build a broader consensus" so India can "harness the full potential of GM technology in agriculture in a safe and sustainable manner."
It's unclear what consensus would satisfy Mr. Ramesh. The eggplant in question, developed by a local Indian company that's partly owned by Monsanto, has been undergoing testing for a decade. India's own Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, composed of eminent scientists from across the country, approved the strain in October, adding it was "effective in controlling target pests, safe to the environment, nontoxic as determined by toxicity and animal feeding tests, non-allergenic and has potential to benefit the farmers."
Which makes Mr. Ramesh's decree no small setback. India is the second-largest eggplant producer in the world. Its farmers lose around 40% of the crop annually to a pest that the genetically modified strain would have suppressed. Modern science could have increased crop yields, improved safety and lowered costs for India's poorest citizens.
Instead, Mr. Ramesh has resurrected a decade-old "Frankenfood" scare over GM foods. The Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi dubbed Tuesday's decision "a question of public health, which can't be compromised at any cost." This represents the typical stance of green groups, who use the precautionary principle to argue against all genetically modified crops despite the scientific evidence of their safety.
In India, however, there is also a strong undercurrent of protectionism in this debate. For instance, Greenpeace India called for a halt to 41 other GM food crops under development in the name of "food security"-code for protectionism against foreign imports. In a statement explaining his decision, Mr. Ramesh, among other things, referenced "very serious fears" of "Monsanto controlling our food chain." That kind of raw populism doesn't encourage a serious debate.
Monsanto has been in the cross-hairs of NGOs in India before. Its genetically modified cotton, introduced in the country in 2002, sparked hysterical protests. Eight years later, India has doubled its cotton yields and is now the world's second-largest producer, behind China.
Tuesday's decision doesn't only affect Monsanto. It will discourage other foreign companies who want to sell biotech innovations into India, blunt the aspiration of native Indian entrepreneurs, and leave India's poor worse off as they await New Delhi's elusive "consensus."
'India's government resurrects the Frankenfood scare.'
News Feb 12, 2010