Bangalore: A leading Indian biochemist has urged the environment and forests ministry to lift the moratorium on Bt brinjal, the country`s first genetically modified (GM) food crop developed using a technology supplied by the US multinational seed giant Monsanto.
"The moratorium is not affecting the multinational companies but India`s own scientists who are ready with more than a dozen GM crops, including (Vitamin-A rich) golden rice," said Govindarajan Padmanabhan at the Indian Institute of Science here.
Cultivation of GM brinjal containing the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) gene - derived from a soil bacterium - was approved by the ministry`s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) in October 2009.
But in February 2010, Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh clamped a moratorium due to pressure from the anti-GM lobby. The ban is yet to be lifted.
Padmanabhan said a great opportunity to improve nutritive quality of foodgrains "is being frittered away and it is sad that activists are ruling the roost".
"Bt brinjal can substantially decrease pesticide sprays and benefit the farmer from increased yield and decreased exposure to such sprays," he said in a report in the latest issue of the journal Current Science, published by the Indian Academy of Sciences.
"The least the environment ministry can do is to let limited independent trials in farmers` fields to verify the claims," he said.
"When a biotechnology revolution can offer technologies to improve agriculture and food security in free India, it is dithering and procrastinating to the point of self-defeat," he said.
He argued that the Bt gene was not toxic to humans, animals or the environment. Millions of people in different parts of the world, including the US, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and China, were consuming Bt corn over several years without any authenticated reports of a mishap.
The fear that the antibiotic markers used in the process of producing Bt brinjal may cause antibiotic resistance in people who consume the product is unwarranted, he said, adding that "antibiotic resistance is actually caused by over-prescription of the same for treatment by physicians and not by GM crops".
Padmanabhan pointed out that a report recently prepared jointly by six science academies in India supported the introduction of Bt brinjal for limited trials, but it was debunked following "a hue and cry about plagiarism since part of the report is a verbatim copy of an earlier article", Padmanabhan said.
"The intention of the activists is to divert attention to an irrelevant issue (of plagiarism) since the facts stated (in the report) are irrevocable," he said.
"I am disappointed that the environment ministry is also being led by activists to spend time in trashing the academy report, rather than look to ways of lifting the moratorium," Padmanabhan said.
He said he was also distressed that "even the science ministry, which is investing in research and development with GM technology, is keeping mum (on the Bt brinjal issue)".
He pointed out that the Philippines was using Indian data on Bt brinjal to introduce its version in the country; Argentina has blazed a trail as leader in GM crop cultivation among developing countries and the European Union has accepted GM potato.
Even African countries are drawing inspiration from the success stories of countries like Brazil while China has approved commercial trials of Bt rice, said Padmanabhan.
"This means that Bt rice could be available in the market in a few years. I will not be surprised if we import Bt rice from China sooner than later. Are we blind to what is happening elsewhere in the globe?" he asked.
According to Padmanabhan, in developed countries, modern methods of agriculture were providing 80 percent of the theoretical yield of food crops and GM technology can push it up to 90 percent.
Productivity levels in India are at 30-40 percent and any technology that can push up the yield to say 60 percent would have a tremendous impact, he said.
"Everyone talks about improvement in agricultural technology to enhance yields and to address under-nutrition in the country. Here is a technology which at least provides a window of opportunity to leap forward," he said.
Taking a dig at his own fraternity, Padmanabhan said that few scientists in the field speak up for fear of being attacked by friends and activists.
"We are even afraid to stand by the science academies of which some of us are fellows," he said, adding that scientists "have to take up a defensive position to justify a technology based on sound science, ethics and concern for society".