Differences have surfaced within the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, with two ministers taking opposing views on the commercial introduction of genetically modified brinjal, also referred to as Bt brinjal.
Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has said the issue would be taken to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for a final decision.
Reacting to Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar’s statement that the Genetic Engineering and Approval Committee’s (GEAC’s) decision on the introduction of Bt brinjal would be final, Ramesh, in a strongly worded letter to Pawar, said it was inaccurate to say the Centre would not have any say on the issue.
Sources close to Pawar told Business Standard on Friday: “GEAC has given its recommendation for commercialisation of Bt brinjal. If there are objections to the recommendations of the committee, it is to be countered in a scientific manner.”
Besides, the final decision on the commercial use of Bt brinjal can be taken, if necessary, after referring the GEAC’s report to the government’s scientific advisor or an equivalent body. Such decisions cannot be taken going simply by passion or opposition.
“I beg to completely disagree with this view, if indeed, the newspapers have quoted you accurately,” Ramesh said in his letter to Pawar. “In a democracy like ours, we have to take decisions that have far-reaching consequences with the greatest degree of caution, with the greatest degree of transparency and after ensuring all stakeholders have been heard to their satisfaction,” he added in his letter.
Ramesh has been holding public consultations across seven cities to hear what activists and scientists are saying on the issue. He told newspersons recently that the chief ministers of West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar, which together account for over 50 per cent of brinjal cultivation, had already said they did not want Bt brinjal.
Several experts have expressed their doubts over the long-term effects of genetically-modified food and opposed the introduction of Bt brinjal.
Suman Sahai, convenor of Gene Campaign, said the argument for introducing Bt brinjal, that it saves it from the shoot borer, is itself flawed. The disease that brinjal is most prone to is bacterial wilt, she said. “Bt brinjal will do nothing to check the bacterial wilt,” said Sahai, a geneticist.
Activists had expressed doubts whether Ramesh would be able to reverse the decision of GEAC, which is a statutory body. But following Pawar’s reported comments, the environment minister seems to have taken a firm stand and stated: “GEAC may well be a statutory body but when crucial issues of human safety are involved, the government has every right and, in fact, a basic responsibility, to take the final decision based on the recommendations of GEAC.”
He said, by February 20, once he had feedback from all the stakeholders, he would be able to take a “considered view” and share his final views with the prime minister, the health minister, as also the agriculture minister.
“I respect GEAC and the work it has done. However as the minister concerned and a concerned minister I am sure you will agree with me that when I say I am personally entitled to take my own time arriving at a decision on what to do with GEAC recommendations,” he added.