Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh today sought to turn the debate on Bt brinjal against his opponents, especially Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, saying the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) had noted that on an issue of such vast implications, the final verdict rested with the government. Pawar has been questioning his efforts to reassess the decision of GEAC, the statutory body responsible for approving the cultivation of Bt brinjal.
In statements to the media late last month, Pawar was quoted as saying the decision by GEAC on the introduction of Bt brinjal would be final. In a swift, strongly worded letter to Pawar, Ramesh said the issue on human safety would not be decided in a rush and the matter would eventually be taken to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
But, Ramesh seems to have given a new twist to this debate by saying that GEAC itself had suggested government intervention. “Since this decision of GEAC has important policy implications at the national level, GEAC has decided the recommendation for environmental release may be put up before the government for taking a final view on the matter,” Ramesh told Business Standard as he read from a letter dated September 15, 2009.
GEAC Chairman M Farooqui, who is also special secretary in the environment ministry, confirmed such a letter had been sent before he took over in December.
In a more direct attack on his ministerial colleagues, Ramesh said: “Bt brinjal is not just a farmer issue. We cannot ignore larger consumer groups.” He added that he was acting on a very “limited mandate” of looking at the approval given to Bt brinjal. “I am not deciding on the future of genetically modified technology in agriculture.”
Asked if differences had emerged in the UPA government on the issue, Ramesh said: “Differences are inevitable in a democracy.”
GEAC’s approval to commercialisation of genetically modified brinjal in the country in October last year had led civil society groups and several scientists to question the safety of long-term consumption of genetically modified foods. Ramesh started public consultations across seven cities in India before taking a final decision.
After holding the final consultation in Bangalore on Saturday, Ramesh said he would be ready to announce the decision by Wednesday. Responding to attacks by his detractors that he had no authority on the issue, he said: “The decision will be taken by me. The file has come to me. What the government does with the decision, I don’t know.”
He added his decision would be guided by the framework laid out by Manmohan Singh in his speech on January 3 to scientists at the Indian Science Congress. Singh, while agreeing Bt cotton had made a significant difference to its production, had also urged caution while extending the technology to food crops.
“The technology of genetic modification is also being extended to food crops, though this raises legitimate questions of safety. These must be given full weightage, with appropriate regulatory control based on strictly scientific criteria,” Singh had said at the Congress.
Ramesh said he had got views of scientists from India and abroad and of serious-minded civil society organisations.
Asked if he was dealing with a scientific issue in an emotional manner, he said: “This is not a scientific issue. There are larger social and political issues involved here.” He said the issue involved around the entire food chain and needed to be looked at carefully.
Also read: Jan 23: Ramesh, Pawar take opposing stand on Bt brinjal