By Matthias Williams
NEW DELHI, Feb 9
The Indian environment minister decided on Tuesday against allowing farmers to grow the first genetically modified (GM) vegetable in the country.
WHAT'S BEHIND THE CONTROVERSY?
A decision has been pending since last year on the introduction of a genetically modified type of eggplant, known as Bt Brinjal, and sparked a heated debate over its potential benefits and dangers.
Advocates of genetically modified crops say such varieties can boost food supply for India's 1.2 billion people and protect farmers, as they can better withstand adverse weather, raise output significantly and mitigate the heavy use of pesticides.
Opponents say GM seeds such as the "Bt Brinjal" can be a hazard for the environment and public health, threaten diversity and must be tested thoroughly before they are commercially used.
WHAT'S AT STAKE FOR INDIA?
More than half of India's population is directly dependent on agriculture, which is subject to fickle monsoon rains.
Agricultural output has lagged behind as India's overall economic growth boomed in recent years, and now faces a growing threat from the effects of climate change, some experts say.
The worst monsoon in nearly three decades in 2009 helped drive up food prices in India, a country where hundreds of millions live below the poverty line.
According to data from India's farm ministry, crop yields are among the lowest in the world. In 2006, wheat yield per hectare was 3,124 kg against 10,598 kg in Egypt. The yield in neighbouring Bangladesh was 3,904 kg/hectare.
For corn the yield in India was only 1,938 kg/hectare compared with 2,906 kg in Pakistan and 9,360 kg in Turkey.
HOW IMPORTANT IS THE EGGPLANT CROP ITSELF?
India is the world's second-largest producer of eggplants, trailing China, with about 2,500 varieties.
A GM lobby group has said Tuesday's decision cost eggplant farmers $330 million a year.
IS THERE A BLANKET BAN ON GM CROPS IN INDIA?
No, as the government gave the green light to the commercial cultivation of GM cotton in 2002 amid protests.
That decision helped India become the world's second largest cotton producer and exporter after China, with about 5 million farmers growing GM cotton.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
The issue will likely drag on for a long time. India's Genetic Engineering Approval Committee had already given the green light for the eggplant crop last October.
But the Environment Minister has imposed an indefinite moratorium, saying more scientific evidence on the effects were needed, and also resisted a partial release of the GM plant.