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India halts genetically modified eggplant release

MUMBAI, India — India halted the release of the world's first genetically modified eggplant Tuesday, saying further study needed to be done to guarantee consumer safety before it could be cultivated in the country.

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said more independent research must be conducted to ensure the hybrid eggplant was safe for human consumption, after a government committee approved the commercial release of the genetically modified, pest-resistant crop in October.

"It is my duty to adopt a cautious, precautionary principle-based approach and impose a moratorium," he said.

The moratorium on commercial cultivation will be extended until "such time (as) independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product," he said.

Advocates of genetically modified crops say they cut down on pesticide use, increase yields and are the only way to meet the world's growing food needs.

Detractors question their safety and say they undermine biodiversity and drive poor farmers deeper into debt.

The seeds were developed by Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Ltd. (Mahyco), using a pest-resistance gene, called Bt. It is derived from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium by St. Louis, Missouri-based Monsanto Co.

Monsanto owns a 26 percent stake in Mahyco and the two companies operate a joint venture to market Bt cotton in India, which is the nation's only genetically modified crop now under commercial cultivation.

Monsanto says Mahyco's Bt Brinjal — an Indian name for eggplant — is the first genetically modified eggplant in the world.

Bt maize, used for animal feed, is grown in 17 countries and imported by 10 more, and China recently approved a strain of Bt rice for human consumption.

"Mahyco is confident that sound science based on evidence obtained over nine years of rigorous testing will prevail and the country's farmers, consumers and farm labor and the environment will benefit from agriculture biotechnology," General Manager M.K. Sharma said in a statement late Tuesday.

Many state officials, farmers, scientists and non-governmental groups think otherwise.

Ramesh hosted seven public meetings across the country to debate Bt Brinjal before his Tuesday announcement. At times they devolved into heated shouting matches.

Protesters dressed in bright purple and green eggplant outfits with "Bt Brinjal QUIT India, Monsanto QUIT India" signs took to the streets.

Leaders from states that account for at least 60 percent of eggplant grown in India said they would ban its cultivation no matter what the central government decided.

"Why look for genetically modified food when India has an abundance of different varieties of food grains and vegetables?" Trivendra Singh Rawat, the agriculture minister of Uttarakhand, in northern India, told The Associated Press.

Uttarakhand was the first state to declare its intention to ban the crop on Feb. 6. Two other states, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, soon followed suit.

At least eight other states have voiced concern.

"The bacterium is safe in the soil, but when you put the Bt gene in the plant it is not," said activist Vandana Shiva, founder of Navdanya, a network of seed banks and organic producers across 16 states in India.

She said independent studies done in Europe show that loss of fertility, organ failure, and lowered immunity can be correlated with GM food.

India's moratorium, she added, "will force the government to do independent studies and put in place stronger safety systems."

Shiva said chemicals and genetic modification aren't the answer to the world's growing demand for food. "You can only meet it through biodiverse systems that are organic," she said.

Associated Press writer Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow contributed to this report.