PM emerges as Ramesh's sole backer on Bt brinjal

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday cautiously backed environment minister Jairam Ramesh's moratorium on Bt brinjal, saying in effect that while the government needed to be cautious in introducing genetically modified crops, biotechnology could not be ignored, and the ban should not drag on indefinitely.

His clarification came after a meeting on Wednesday evening with Ramesh, agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, minister for science and technology Prithviraj Chavan, and human resources development minister Kapil Sibal, who was Chavan's predecessor in the science ministry.

A statement issued by the prime minister's office after the meeting said, "It was agreed that biotechnology is an important option for higher agricultural productivity and ensuring food security. At the same time, we must ensure that it has no adverse effects on human and animal health and biodiversity."
The statement added, "The government will soon be moving forward in setting up a National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority which will inspire confidence and stimulate public and private investment in biotechnology." Such an authority is among Ramesh's demands.

All three senior ministers - Pawar, Chavan and Sibal - have come out strongly against Ramesh's stand. The meeting was called after Pawar wrote to the prime minister protesting against Ramesh's moratorium on commercial cultivation of Monsanto's Bt brinjal. At the meeting, he reiterated his stand that scientists had been demoralised by the controversy, while Sibal suggested that Bt brinjal could be cleared in six months.

The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the clearance authority under the environment ministry, will be asked to expeditiously address the questions of science and public health that Ramesh had referred to in his 19-page report. The prime minister was reportedly of the view that the issue should not be allowed to drag on.

Ramesh in his report had said that the scientific community was divided in its opinion about the safety of consuming the genetically modified brinjal. He had also questioned the value of the existing prescribed tests, pointing out that many of them were conducted by the proponents of the products themselves and did not inspire public confidence.