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Genetically Modified Food Crops Suffers Setback in India

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India has put on hold the commercial cultivation of genetically modified food crops.  The decision is seen as a setback by advocates who believe such crops could help boost food supplies in the country.

The eggplant is a popular vegetable in India, but it seldom appears in news headlines.

Now, it is in the spotlight after the government indefinitely deferred plans to let farmers grow a genetically modified version of the vegetable, known as Bt brinjal, earlier this week.       

And other genetically modified food crops could meet a similar fate.

So far, cotton is the only genetically modified crop grown in India, and many call it a success story. Since its cultivation in 2002, cotton yield has nearly doubled, and India has become a leading exporter.

But Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh says the government wants to wait for more scientific data on the safety of genetically modified food crops for human consumption.  

"Bt cotton I can live with, but Bt brinjal I am a little worried about, because it is a food crop…. And there is no tearing hurry to introduce BT brinjal in our country," says Ramesh.

The decision disappointed many who had hoped that genetically modified technology could play a central role in the country's efforts to raise production of staple foods.

BT brinjal, for example, was expected to raise yields by up to 50 percent and cut farming costs by reducing dependence on pesticides.

Economists and agricultural scientists say boosting farm yields is a priority for India. They say a growing population and diminishing farmlands leads to food shortages and rising food prices.

India has been conducting field trials on genetically modified versions of crops such as rice, mustard, cauliflower and peas for nearly a decade.

D.H. Pai Panandiker is an economist and chairman of the Indian subsidiary of the Washington-based International Life Sciences Institute. He says the country's food security will be threatened unless it adopts new technologies to boost yields.   

"There is tremendous scope for introducing biotechnology in normal crops like rice and wheat. One has to go by scientific evidence as already available and adopt it as fast as possible," said Panandiker.

However, detractors insist the technology is a health hazard, and is being pushed ahead by multinational companies such as U-S based Monsanto, a leader in biotech crop biotechnology. An Indian seed company, Mahyco, in which Monsanto has a stake, had helped develop Bt brinjal.

Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist who has led a long battle against genetically modified crops, says she is relieved that cultivation of the BT brinjal has been blocked. She says there is no room for genetically modified food in Indian homes.

"Neither BT brinjal, nor BT eggplant, nor Bt potato nor Bt tomato will go through if there is an honest assessment. It is a crude technology at this stage. We need the science to evolve, we need more sophisticated modification systems," she said.   

Some scientists are concerned the decision on BT Brinjal will slow down further research on genetically modified food crops in the country. They say with controversy swirling around the new technology, the government will continue to adopt a cautious approach.

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