Within the next one year, the Indian market may open its doors to Bt brinjal, a genetically modified (GM) version of the common vegetable. While government officials claim the crop won't be released without adequate safety assurance, campaigners and civil society organizations here feel the safety precautions are unreliable.
India is one of the six top countries for cultivation of GM crops. Now the Bt brinjals are in the final stages of approval from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), a government body.
"All the tests for GM crops in India are conducted under controlled supervision. The Bt brinjal has a long line of clearance and approval from various departments - if we are convinced by the tests that will be reviewed later this month, it may be introduced in a year's time," GEAC Director B.S. Parashera told IANS.
The committee assesses environmental safety of a GM product over a six-year period, he explained.
That has failed to reassure activists against GM crops, especially food crops.
"Studies from across the globe have shown that GM food caused a series of health problems including stunted growth, infertility, impaired immune system and organ damage that can be carried over generations," said Mira Shiva, member of the All India Drug Action Network and of the Initiative for Health, Equity and Society.
She denounced GM foods going commercial and said: "Bio-safety norms are given the lowest priority in India. Then there are regulatory gaps."
After Bt brinjal, there are 25 kinds of rice, 23 kinds of tomatoes, many types of groundnut, pigeon peas, potato, mustard, sugarcane, soy and okra awaiting GEAC approval.
"Even after two years of field trials of GM crops, no regulatory body has any evidence on bio-safety of GM okra, rice and mustard," Mira Shiva charged.
All these GM crops were in the testing stage and "will require approval from GEAC, then the ministry for agriculture, before they can be commercialized for mass-scale production," Parashera assured. GEAC works under the environment ministry.
Explaining what exactly happens when crops are genetically modified, the GEAC chief said: "In GM foods, the seeds are made with genetic enhancement to become resistant to pests and bugs - we work in this area to solve the bigger problems - reduce use of chemical pesticides and fertilizer for environment-friendly options. We also make seeds available at affordable prices to farmers."
But a recent report by international NGO Greenpeace - called "Genetic Gamble - Safe food the end of choice?" - says there is still no evidence that GM food is safe, though the budget for genetically engineered food research has increased by 250 percent since 2005.
"In all likelihood Bt brinjal will be launched with no label and we and our families will have no choice but to become lab rats in this grand genetic experiment," Greenpeace campaigner Jai Krishna told IANS.
Rajesh Krishnan, who helped compile the Greenpeace report, said: "If launched in the Indian markets, these Bt brinjals could spell disaster. The results of the tests carried out by the government must be made available for public scrutiny."
Some data was available online, said Parashera, but "certain data that the developer wants to keep confidential in research and development stages must be kept so. However, if there is an unreasonable request from the firm that is likely to affect public health, we will overrule the firm."
Krishnan charged that Bt brinjal developer firm Monsanto outsourced its testing to a Pune firm "that is not even accredited by the Indian government" to carry out the testing. Monsanto controls about 80 percent of the global GM crop trade.
"On the basis of such research a potentially harmful product will be commercialized," Krishnan said.
Parashera refuted the charge and maintained that all testing was under direct supervision of the committee with consultation from independent researchers. He also said that in case a crop is released in the market "the packaging of the seeds will mention that it's genetically treated, and the farmers will have the choice of rejecting it."
Aruna Roy, who spearheaded the Right to Information (RTI) campaign in India, criticized the hush hush approach to commercialization of GM crops in India, saying it "hindered the right of consumers to make an informed choice".
Roy told IANS: "In the days to come GM food is likely to be pushed as a solution to solve the global food crisis, but lives can be potentially damaged by something being carried out behind closed doors; where the public has no access because corporates cite patent issues."
Pareshera agreed that Bt brinjal might not be physically distinguishable to the consumer at the vegetable retailer's shop, a thought at which Roy shuddered.
"Our sovereignty cannot be bargained away in secret pacts with developed countries," she said. "We need to see the facts and the public organizations must be accountable for it. For example, if a gene from a scorpion is being used to enhance food, I as a consumer need to know before I choose to eat it."
Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, all countries in the European Union and many in Africa have either banned the entry of GM foods or have imposed strict restrictions on their commercial use.