On Tuesday, India denied permission for commercial cultivation of what would have been its first genetically modified (GM) vegetable crop. Amid controversy and protest, the Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh deemed BT brinjal–a strain of GM aubergine, or eggplant–unsafe for immediate public consumption.

eggplant-featured.jpgBBC News reported late yesterday afternoon that after much debate, Mr. Ramesh decided more studies were needed to ensure GM aubergines were safe for consumers and the environment. It is an issue that has severely polarized the country, one that required several weeks for the Environment Minister to make. He reportedly traveled the country, canvassing public opinion and even consulting outside experts from the United States and China.

In the end, Mr. Ramesh placed an indefinite moratorium on cultivating GM vegetables in India.

“Public sentiment is negative,” he said. “It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary, principle-based approach. The decision is responsible to science and responsive to society.”

His decision, Mr. Ramesh said, would make “50 percent of India happy, while 50 percent of India will be unhappy with me. I can’t ignore public opinion, but I can’t ignore science either. I have to tread a fine line.”

Champions of the crop argue that it contains a toxic gene that poisons insect pests and will boost yields while reducing independence on pesticides. They cite BT cotton, which India has grown widely since 2002, as a successful example.

“BT cotton has improved our life. Do not succumb to false propaganda–BT will not harm anybody,” one farmer told Ramesh. 

“BT as a protein is highly degradable and doesn’t persist in the environment and hence is not a threat,” said a pro-GM scientist. “Chemical pesticides used in regular crops do more damage to the environment.”

However, many scientists have warned that not enough is known about the effects of the new variety on human beings and the environment. It is unclear how BT will affect the land and the biodiversity of the country, they say, and the country’s rural masses are angry at the prospect of relying on overseas suppliers for expensive new seeds.

“By controlling the seeds these (GM companies) will control Indian agriculture and the entire food system,” said Balbir Singh Billing, a farmers’ union leader.

“This is potentially very dangerous,” warned Pushpa Bhargava of the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, India’s GM regulator. “Once you release a GM crop, you can’t recall it.” He said the safety data on BT brinjal was “unacceptable and incomplete,” partly because it was supplied by Mahyco, an Indian partner of the American GM giant Monsanto.

“These are the same companies that introduced fertilizers and pesticides, suggesting we could not do without them,” alleged Singh Billing. “Now, because of the consequent ill effects, the same companies want to introduce GM foods.”