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India says no to GM food

NEW DELHI, Feb 9 – India refused to grant permission Wednesday to the commercial cultivation of its first genetically modified (GM) food crop, citing problems of public trust and confidence.

In a written statement, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said he was imposing a moratorium on the introduction of an aubergine modified with a gene toxic to pests that regularly devastate crops across India.

Its backers said the genetically modified aubergine would boost yields by up to 50 percent, while reducing dependence on pesticides.

But critics pointed to possible long-term health problems, and warned it would open the doors to a flood of other GM food crops.

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

"Under no circumstances should there be any hurry or rush. The moratorium will continue for as long as it is needed to establish public trust and confidence," he added.

Indian regulators had approved the new aubergine back in October and its introduction would have made it the first GM foodstuff to be grown in India.

But a broad spectrum of voices, including hardline Hindu nationalists, environmentalists and leftist politicians had urged the government to prevent its cultivation.

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The seeds had been developed by Indian scientists but would be marketed by an Indian firm partly owned by the US multinational Monsanto.

The government\’s decision on Tuesday came at a sensitive time with growing public frustration over soaring food prices, following a particularly poor 2009 monsoon.

Mathura Rai, the Indian scientist who led the group that came up with the modified aubergine, declined to comment directly on the moratorium, but insisted that GM crops had a crucial role to play.

"We need a technology for increasing the quality production of vegetable crops," Rai, head of the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, told AFP from his headquarters in Varanasi city.

"In certain areas where traditional methods of breeding is not possible to improve the production or productivity, biotechnology can play a vital role," he said.

"So this is the best option for increasing the production of quality aubergine in the country," he added.

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