Update: On 9 February 2010, in response to the widespread concern expressed by the public and some scientists, Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Environment and Forests, announced an indefinite moratorium on the release of Bt-brinjal.
On 14 October 2009 an Indian governmental agency – the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), part of the Environment Ministry – gave its approval for the environmental release of Bt brinjal.  This means that the crop is considered safe for use in an open space, which includes planting on a commercial scale. Its decision followed lobbying by Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd (Mahyco), Monsanto’s partner in India, which has been largely responsible for the development of Bt brinjal. Shortly before GEAC announced its decision, Mahyco’s managing director, Raju Barware, said on the company’s website: “We look forward to a positive decision because it will help millions of our brinjal farmers who have been suffering from the havoc caused by the brinjal fruit and shoot borer (BFSB)”. He also claimed that Bt brinjal “has the same nutritional value and is compositionally identical to non-Bt brinjal, except for the additional Bt protein which is specific in its action against the BFSB”. This mirrors the US Department of Agriculture’s official stand that genetically modified (GM) crops are substantially equivalent to natural non-GM crops.
Bt brinjal would be the first genetically engineered food crop to be approved for commercial cultivation in India, and the government sees it as the first of many. “In the near future we expect many GM crops that have been modified for better availability of vitamins, iron, micronutrients, quality proteins and oils, which would secure nutritional security to the masses”, said Minister of State for Agriculture, K.V. Thomas. The importance of this first authorisation was not lost on farmers’ and consumers’ organisations, along with a wide spectrum of other groups, who immediately organised protests. Faced with this reaction, the Environment Ministry decided just a day after the go-ahead to put the decision on hold for several months. It gave organisations until 31 December 2009 to comment on the report of the expert committee, which formed the basis of the GEAC’s decision,  and it has said that it will consult “all stakeholders”,  including scientists, agriculture experts, farmers’ organisations, consumer groups and NGOs, in January and February 2010.
Groups are lobbying strongly to force the Indian government to reverse its decision permanently. According to G. Nammalvar from Vanagam, a non-profit-making organisation in Tamil Nadu that campaigns in favour of ecological farming, “there is no necessity for the introduction of a Bt brinjal in India, which holds the merit of having huge biodiversity. We have 2,500 traditional brinjal varieties in India. Every community is used to consuming a particular variety, i.e. locally produced. Introduction of Bt brinjal with false claims for its advantages will contaminate the local varieties and erode the biodiversity of the vegetable that is consumed by millions.” He says that environmental activists, women’s collectives, consumers’ movements, farmers’ associations and traders’ associations would join together to resist the introduction of Bt brinjal in Tamil Nadu.
His voice of protest has been echoed across the country. On 7 November 2009 a conference on genetic engineering, farming and food, held in Mysore, called on the state government to declare Karnataka a GM-free region. “We do not want GM crops which can prove apocalyptic for mankind”, declared the conference statement. “Let us say never to Bt brinjal.” In Trivandrum on 3 December groups organised a Brinjal Festival with, among other activities, a display of local brinjal varieties from the farmers of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. A seven-day festival was held elsewhere in Kerala from 27 December to create awareness of the dangers of Bt brinjal. Over 50 scientists and about 100 delegates from various universities and scientific institutions across the country, besides farmers, policy-makers and representatives of government and non-governmental organisations, participated. Farmers’ groups are also threatening to take “direct action” if the government goes ahead with the authorisation.
Meanwhile, at national level, a legal battle is pending before the Supreme Court of India, in which the petitioners are demanding a ban on the release of any GM crops until adequate scientific testing has been carried out and a credible biosafety regulatory system has been put in place. At the same time the government is proposing to set up a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority to oversee the testing of biotech crops. Department of Biotechnology Director S.R. Rao said that this will make sure that biotech policies are “based on scientific assessments of risk and not on any sloganeering and campaigning by public interest groups”.
Mahyco was the first company to sell genetically engineered Bt cotton – Bollgard – in 2002, and it has faced constant criticism since then. This time it has acted more cautiously and will not itself be selling the GM seeds directly. The promoters of the technology have deftly packaged the release of this Bt crop as an output of a public–private partnership. The partnership – designed by the US government, funded by the USAID and led by Cornell University – comprises Mahyco Hybrid Seed Company Ltd, Tamil Nadu Agriculture University (TNAU) in Coimbatore, the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) in Dharwad, and the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research in Varanasi. USAID’s Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II is supporting Mahyco’s efforts to gain regulatory approval for the technology.
Many aspects of the development of Bt brinjal are shrouded in mystery, and activists are using Right to Information legislation to try and untangle the complex sequence of events. It is clear that the process started with Mahyco using Monsanto-licensed technology to genetically modify brinjal in its lab in India. The GM brinjal was then crossed with “material” from TNAU . One material transfer agreement (MTA), signed between TNAU and Mahyco, clearly states that “TNAU has supplied to MHSCL [Mahyco] eggplant germplasm developed, owned, controlled and/or in-licensed by TNAU”.
Indian farmers have good reason to be particularly concerned about this. They have for years in good faith allowed scientists to gather genetic material from their crops and store it in agricultural universities and research institutes. All this cross-sector, transborder and cross-institute movement of plant material is making many ask some very fundamental questions: to whom do seed and crop materials really belong? Does the public sector National Agricultural Research System (NARS), entrusted with farmers’ varieties, have the power to pass on the material to private corporations? And even if there is acknowledgement of the years of local farming knowledge behind the folk varieties of brinjal by sharing any “benefits”, can the loss of pure, natural, genetically untampered-with indigenous varieties be reversed or recompensed? Most of all, can large corporations backed by their governments be allowed to take over farming?
There was also a series of “transfers” and “approvals”, which happened with characteristic lack of transparency. First the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources authorised Mahyco to import parental lines from Bangladesh, and then in 2007 the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA), India’s main decision-making authority in this field, gave Mahyco clearance to send back the material, now genetically modified, to East West Seeds Bangladesh Ltd for seed distribution. Mahyco has operations in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. In other words, the NBA actually authorised a multinational company to use Indian germplasm to develop a GM product that would not only be used in India but also exported to India’s neighbours, endangering Asia’s biodiversity.
Some farmers believe that Mahyco’s offer to “provide the technology free of cost” to the NARS is nothing less than a ploy by the GM industry to penetrate the NARS and to leave farmers with little option but accept Mahyco’s products. For all the talk of the benefits of Bt brinjal, farmers clearly see that the introduction of this first GM food crop would start a process that would seriously jeopardise India’s food and farm systems and the biodiversity that sustains them. They are determined to struggle against it.