An Indian farmer has been found illegally growing a genetically modified (GM) aubergine. The event immediately sparked anti-GM protests and anti-GM lobby groups have filed a public interest litigation in the supreme court demanding a complete moratorium on the growing of GM crops. The discovery highlights India’s ongoing, uneasy relationship with genetically modified organisms.

Activists discovered that a farmer in a Haryana state village was cultivating a transgenic aubergine in April, and alerted the government and media. The illiterate farmer had apparently bought the seedlings from a vendor at a bus stop. He was seeking a variety resistant to the fruit and shoot borer moth, unaware that he was buying a GM crop.

It’s a victory for activists who have used every means to scuttle the use of GM technology

Govindarajan Padmanaban, former director of the Indian Institute of Science

India’s National Bureau for Plant Genetic Resources confirmed that the farmer’s crop was transgenic. His farm samples tested positive for CaMV 35S promoter, nos (nopaline synthase) promoter and nptII (neomycin phosphotransferase II) marker genes. As the probe continues, authorities are in the dark as to where the plants came from. One possibility is that the seeds were smuggled in from neighbouring Bangladesh where this GM aubergine is legal.

Transgenic aubergines are on India’s list of banned GM crops. However, since 2001, farmers in the country have had access to a number of banned seeds on the black market. Varieties of pest-resistant and herbicide-tolerant GM cotton have been found growing illegally in the country and a herbicide-tolerant GM soya bean was discovered being cultivated in Gujarat in 2017.

In India, one transgenic crop is still legal to grow – a pest-resistant cotton that was first approved in 2002. In 2009, India’s biotechnology regulator, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), recommended the commercial release of a pest-resistant transgenic aubergine developed by Mahyco, an Indian biotechnology firm. But, in 2010, the government succumbed to pressure from activists and imposed a moratorium on its release.

India has put the release of another crop on hold – a high yield GM mustard. In May 2017, GEAC approved the GM mustard hybrid developed by a team led by Deepak Pental, a former genetics professor at the University of Delhi. However, public pressure forced the government to defer the release and seek more data on seed production efficiency and any impact on honeybees.

‘The current state of GM crops in India is afflicted with policy paralysis,’ Pental says. ‘Crop productivity in India is stagnating due to pests and pathogens, and also abiotic stresses. These will only increase with climate change. Farmers require robust crops and GM technologies can help.’

Pental still has some hope for GM mustard, however. He says that farmers’ stagnant earnings, an acute shortage of edible oils and the technology’s excellent safety record in rapeseed, a close relative of mustard, could tilt the decision in GM mustard’s favour and lead to the production of hybrids with higher yields. Ironically, all the work on GM mustard has been supported by public funding from the National Dairy Development Board and the Department of Biotechnology.

GM crops are grown in 26 countries around the world but have run into problems in many others as public opinion turned against them. For more than a decade, activists and many politicians in India, and in Europe and elsewhere, have steadfastly opposed them. They fear that they will compromise food safety and biodiversity, and contend that they pose a risk to health and the environment. They also argue that transgenic food can limit farmers’ rights to breed and exchange crop seeds, and consumers often aren’t able to make an informed choice on whether to eat GM food or not. Claims of GM crops’ productivity and other benefits have been questioned too.

‘It’s a victory for activists who have used every means to scuttle the use of GM technology,’ says Govindarajan Padmanaban, a former director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. ‘There cannot really be a scientific reason [to ban all GM crops], but only political compulsions have made the government dither.’