Farmers growing a landmark genetically modified food crop in Bangladesh – Bt brinjal, or aubergine – have found themselves at the centre of a power struggle between the government and activists trying to prevent the technology getting a hold in the region.
The growers say they have been subjected to intimidation and misinformation about the safety of their produce by anti-GM campaigners. But in an effort to get the crop out to farmers quickly, the Bangladeshi government agency behind the project appears not to have followed some stipulations of its license to release the crops.
The $600,000 (£357,920) pilot scheme – which is owned and run by a Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (Bari) with support from USAid and Cornell University – is a pivotal moment for GM technology in south Asia.
Bt brinjal is southeast Asia’s first GM food crop and has been brought to market after India’s environment ministry imposed a moratorium on the release of a similar crop in 2010 pending further scientific scrutiny. Last May, a court in the Philippines also restricted the release of the crop citing lack of ‘scientific certainty’ on health and ecological safety.
“Activists and many others are fighting over these farmers to try to get them to say what is most convenient to their viewpoint,” said Mark Lynas, communications adviser to the Bt brinjal project.
“The powerful anti-GMO lobby knows that if Bangladeshi farmers successfully adopt this new crop, other GMO crops in the pipeline such as golden rice (also being developed in Bangladesh) will be advantaged and their cause of banning the technology permanently will be harmed,” he wrote in a blog about the project.
The country’s agriculture minister Matia Chowdhury has even suggested that anti-GM activists have received kick-backs from pesticide companies that stand to lose out if the crop is adopted more widely – although she provided no evidence for the claim.
The new crop – which so far has had mixed cultivation success in the pilot farms – is a domestic variety of aubergine or egg-plant (locally called brinjal) which has been genetically modified with a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis – hence
The gene makes a protein that is deadly to a voracious and highly costly pest, a fruit and shoot boring caterpillar, but is harmless to humans and other animals. One big advantage, say its backers, is that farmers will not have to spray their fields with pesticide every two to three days – at a cost of between £76 and £380 per year depending on the extent of infestation. Less spraying also means environmental and health benefits with less collateral damage to wild insects and less pesticide residue on the fruit sold at market.
In granting license for the crop to farmers, the Bangladesh ministry of environment stipulated that Bari must satisfy technical demands to ensure that test fields were suitable and to protect local varieties and wild plants from receiving pollen from the GM plants.
One stipulation was that prior to release of the crops, the institute must, “formulate field production planning, field biosafety management planning … safety measures such as isolation distance management planning, border row management planning, techniques for protection of local and indigenous variety and wild plants.” But Bari’s director Rafiqul Islam Mondal said that the institute did not check the fields before planting the crops. “We did not visit the fields ourselves,” he said.
Another stipulation from the ministry was that Bt brinjal sold in market should be labelled as GM. However, in Jamalpur region the produce was sold without such labelling.
Mondal said grocers do not label any of the vegetables. “We expressed our reservation to the ministry when this [gazette] was issued,” he said.
The backlash against the crop from anti-GM activists has been vehement with unsubstantiated claims that it may itself be harmful to human health and could lead to cancellation of exports of conventional brinjal crops to the EU.
Of the seven farmers the Guardian visited, four had received visits at their farms from people who claimed what they were growing was dangerous to people’s health and trying convince them to cease their involvement. One of those recounted a similar experience at a market where his produce was denounced as unsafe by people opposed to GM technology.
“It will pose a great danger to the farmers and consumers who will not know what they are producing and what they are eating,” wrote Farida Akhter, a green activist and founder of Naya Krishi Andolan (New Agricultural Movement) in an op-ed in Dhaka Tribune shortly after the crop was approved for small-scale growing by the government. “Brinjal is a very common vegetable consumed by majority of the population. So the risks are very high for the people in Bangladesh and even to the consumers in neighbouring India and those in Europe and Middle East.”
There is no evidence that the crop causes any health problems in people, but Akhter says longer-term problems can’t be ruled out. She accuses the government of exploiting the farmers’ lack of understanding about the technology and said the farmers have only grown the crops because the government gave them free saplings. “Farmers are not even aware of the concerns related to the GM crop,” she said.
The 20 farms in four regions of the country have become the focus of intense interest. Farmers have received frequent visits and inquiries from green activists, researchers and journalists. “They come, take photographs of the field and leave but we don’t know what they are doing with it,” said Babul Khan, a Bt brinjal farmer in Jamalpur.
Bari has tried to prevent farmers from speaking about their crops. “I am scared to even talk to anyone about my field. I don’t know what would put me into trouble,” said Haidul Islam, 44, in Gazipur. Some of the farmers have found it difficult to sell their produce at market because of rumours that the fruit are dangerous to eat.
Controversy about the project reached a new peak last month when two local newspaper articles – in the New Age and Financial Express – claimed that the crops had been a failure.
A third article, in the Dhaka Tribune, claimed that Helena Paul – which it described as a “London-based importer of vegetables” – had written to the government in December to “warn that the European Union would stop vegetable imports if any such genetically-modified eggplant is detected in a consignment.” Paul is in fact an anti-GM activist who had written to the government in her capacity as director of the campaign group GM freeze.
The Bt brinjal project team reacted angrily to the suggestion that the technology was not working. They visited one of the farmers quoted in the Financial Express article and claim that he said two men had tried to coerce him into saying his crop had failed.
The Guardian has visited or spoken to all but one of the 20 farmers growing the Bt brinjal crop and established that it has so far had mixed results. While it appears to have successfully repelled the fruit and shoot borer pest as expected, some of the fields have succumbed to other ailments including bacterial wilt and drought. Of the 19 farmers, nine said they had had problems with the crop, with a failure rate of four out of five farms in Gazipur, the region closest to Dhaka.
Visits to the two farms in Jamalpur, over 124 miles north of the Bangladeshi capital, show the contrast in results. The region is a patchwork of meadows and green fields where the locals are largely farmers growing a variety of crops that are mostly trucked to the capital for sale.
Ratan Miah’s farm has yielded 17 maunds (traditional baskets) of the vegetable since the beginning of May – and he says the crops sold well at market. The other farm in the region, owned by Babul Khan, has yielded only three maunds and more than half of his crops have died.
Akhter says that Bari should have had closer oversight over which farms were selected to grow the crops, how they were doing it and whether they were suitable.
Mondal said the “selection of the fields were wrong.” Most of the test fields had cultivated conventional brinjals previously and so they contained pathogens of bacterial wilt and fungus left over from those conventional crops, he said.
But Frank Shotkoski, manager of the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II programme at Cornell, said that the problems with bacterial wilt was largely unavoidable. “We and the farmers were well aware of the fact that the fields were being planted during the wet season when bacterial wilt is more prevalent … There is little that can be done to prevent or control the pathogen when conditions are conducive for infection.”
What is the crop?
The crop is a local variety of brinjal (aubergine or eggplant) that has been genetically modified to include a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. This gene produces the toxin cry1Ac that kills fruit and shoot boring pest when it ingests the plant. Because the plant carries it own ‘pesticide’ the caterpillar does not need to be controlled by repeated rounds of pesticide spraying. The toxin is harmless to humans and other animals.
Who owns the crops?
The Bt gene was developed by the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company, the Indian partner of the US seed giant Monsanto and later donated to the public sector partners in India, Bangladesh and Philippines. Bt brinjal was developed by the government-operated Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute with technical assistance from Cornell University in the US and funding from USAid. Monsanto still owns the technology but has granted a royalty-free, not-for-profit license to BARI to test, produce and distribute the plants other than by sale. Farmers will be encouraged to save seeds and use them in future.
Courtesy – The Guardian.