Associated Press Writer
MUMBAI, India—It began quietly in America a decade ago, with a tomato.
Since the introduction of the Flavr Savr tomato, engineered for long shelf life, genetically modified food has become a fact of American life.
Not so in India. The debate over GM food, long settled in America, is noisily beginning here.
Last week, India halted the commercial release of the world's first genetically engineered eggplant, called Bt brinjal. The environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, said that given the lack of consensus within the scientific community and the pitch of public opposition, further study was needed to guarantee consumer safety.
Why the skepticism over a technology many scientists say is crucial for feeding the 9 billion people who will populate the planet by 2050?
To many in India, embracing Bt brinjal — which has a gene owned by Monsanto Co — also means embracing corporate farming and surrendering some control of the nation's food supply to a powerful foreign company. They worry this could have disastrous consequences for the nation's 100 million small farming families.
"It would not be an exaggeration to say that public concerns about Bt brinjal have been influenced very heavily by perceptions of Monsanto itself," Ramesh wrote in his report.
Some also feel the U.S. has been too quick to embrace GM food and are demanding tougher approval processes, more extensive health studies and mandatory labeling, which the U.S. does not have.
Whether India, like China, will ultimately embrace GM food is a question with profound implications.
At issue is how India — which the U.N. says will surpass China as the world's most populous country by 2030 — will feed itself.
Many other transgenic food crops are in the works, including staples like rice. Advocates say these new strains will boost yields and stabilize supply by, for example, improving drought resistance. Their fate now hangs in the balance, scientists say.
Rising wealth has increased India's appetite, even as agricultural productivity languishes. Food inflation is at 18 percent, due to supply bottlenecks and widespread drought. And the World Health Organization says 21 percent of Indians still don't get enough to eat every day, with 46 percent of children underweight.
Despite its high-tech image, India remains a nation of small, mostly poor farmers, many of whom are skeptical of the promises of industrialization. At least 45 percent of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihood, and most have small, family run farms — a far cry from the U.S., where less than 2 percent of Americans farm for a living.
The fate of these small farmers is at the center of the Bt brinjal debate.
While many embrace new technologies and their promise of higher profits, others fear international corporations could run roughshod over the nation's small farmers.
India remains sharply divided over the legacy of Bt cotton, the only transgenic crop now under commercial cultivation in the country. The genetically altered cotton seeds have increased productivity, but they are more expensive than traditional seeds and have left some farmers deeply in debt.
"The essential issue of livelihood makes a difference," said Mahesh Rangarajan, a history professor at the University of Delhi. "The farmer's concern is dependence on the seed company. That's a genuine concern."
Bt brinjal incorporates a pest-resistant gene owned by Monsanto and was developed by Mahyco, an Indian company 26 percent owned by the St. Louis-based multinational.
The referendum on Bt brinjal was also, in effect, a referendum on Monsanto — despite the company's best efforts to distance itself from the product.
"There has always been in India a critique of industrialization — the idea that high energy, high capacity, high-tech development will not generate enough jobs and will harm the dignity of the self-employed," Rangarajan said.
Gyanendra Shukla, director of Monsanto India, said genetic technology can improve productivity and farmer incomes, and he argued that Monsanto doesn't have a monopoly on the Bt gene — hundreds of variants are available from public and private sources.