Posted on behalf of K. S. Jayamaran.
The controversy over genetically modified (GM) brinjal (eggplant) in India has taken a new turn with a move to prosecute its developers – further delaying commercial cultivation of the country’s first GM food crop.
Although the insect resistant brinjal carrying the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene was cleared by regulators in 2009, the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh imposed an indefinite moratorium on its cultivation in February 2010 (see ‘India’s transgenic aubergine in a stew’). Now the National Biodiversity Authority of India (NBA) has dealt another blow: it has decided to sue the US biotech giant Monsanto and its Indian collaborators who developed the Bt brinjal.
The extraordinary decision by NBA is based on a complaint filed last year by the Bangalore-based Environment Support Group (ESG), alleging that the developers violated India’s Biological Diversity Act of 2002 by using local brinjal varieties in developing Bt Brinjal without prior approval from NBA. Leo F. Saldanha of ESG says his group is hopes NBA will not only launch the legal proceedings soon but also stop processing Monsanto’s recent application to work with two varieties of Indian onions.
While Monsanto has not responeded to the charge, the Maharashtra Hybrid Company (Mahyco) in Mumbai, in which Monsanto has a 26% stake, has denied the charge saying it merely incorporated the Bt gene in the varieties provided by the University of Agricultural Sciences at Dharwad in Karnataka state and provided the technology ‘royalty free’. For its part, the university says the question of violating the law did not arise because it is a public institution and has no commercial mandate.
But Shanthu Shantharam, a biotechnology consultant based in Ellicott City, Maryland and a keen observer of biotech developments in India, says the planned lawsuit is a mistake. “I am simply appalled that NBA’s lawyers have given such a poor advice for it to prosecute the developers of Bt brinjal,” he says. “By this reckoning, all genetic improvements done so far to develop all these local varieties and hybrids would also constitute a violation of the biodiversity act, which is absurd.”