`WHAT'S THE FUSS SS ABOUT BT BRIN­JAL' AL'

Mo­ham­mad Rafiqul Is­lam Mon­dal, dal, di­rec­tor-gen­eral of Bangladesh h Agri­cul­tural Re­search In­sti­tute, e, on why the coun­try grows GM crops ps

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS -

Why did Bangladesh de­cide to grow Bt brin­jal when In­dia and the Philip­pines had al­ready re­jected it? Brin­jal is grown year-round in Bangladesh and is an im­por­tant source of in­come for small-scale farm­ers. It is the third most im­por­tant veg­etable in the coun­try in terms of acreage. But we lose 50 to 70 per cent of the yield be­cause of in­fes­ta­tion of fruit and shoot borer (fsb), an in­sect pest. Farm­ers were find­ing it dif­fi­cult to tackle the in­tense pest at­tack and started adopt­ing scores of meth­ods to de­stroy them—from us­ing highly con­cen­trated pes­ti­cides to pes­ti­cide cock­tails. But there was no respite. At this time Bt brin­jal was the only so­lu­tion and we ac­cepted it.

As far as In­dia is con­cerned, I think it main­tains dou­ble stan­dards. It grows Bt cot­ton (90 per cent of the cot­ton grown in In­dia is ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied), con­sumes ed­i­ble oil from it, yet bans Bt brin­jal. All over the world, de­vel­oped na­tions are grow­ing GM maize and GM soy­abean. South Asian coun­tries, in­clud­ing In­dia and Bangladesh, im­port soy­bean oil and maize prod­ucts from these coun­tries. So what is the fuss about? When did BARI de­cide to start Bt brin­jal project? Did your sci­en­tists carry out in­de­pen­dent stud­ies? Ad­van­tages of Bt brin­jal had al­ready been re­ported in var­i­ous stud­ies con­ducted out­side Bangladesh, es­pe­cially in In­dia. So in 2006 we de­cided to start the project. Af­ter the Bangladesh govern­ment gave its ap­proval, we im­ported seeds from Ma­ha­rash­tra Hy­brid Seed Com­pany Ltd (mahyco), an In­dian com­pany.

The seeds were kept in an iso­lated field at bari head­quar­ters and seven re­gional agri­cul­tural re­search sta­tions in Rang­pur, Jes­sore, My­mensingh, Tan­gail, Bo­gra, Di­na­jpur and Ja­malpur districts. The fields were iso­lated by plac­ing barbed wires around it and we did not al­low same crop species to be grown within 200 me­tres. We saw a size­able in­crease in yield.

A va­ri­ety of safety stud­ies were also con­ducted be­fore we started the project. These in­cluded feed­ing stud­ies on chicken, fish and cow. The stud­ies demon­strate that the gene in­serted into brin­jals does not cause ad­verse ef­fects on hu­mans, wild and domes-

ticated an­i­mals, birds and fishes, and non­tar­get in­sects. Bt brin­jal went through a rig­or­ous safety mech­a­nism over seven years be­fore it was al­lowed to be com­mer­cially cul­ti­vated. Will there not be in­tel­lec­tual property rights is­sues? Will BARI and Bangladesh govern­ment pay royalty to MAHYCO? Ab­so­lutely not. Bt brin­jal is a govern­men­towned and govern­ment-led project. Al­though it is funded by United States Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment (usaid), bari is the sole de­vel­oper and owner of lo­cal Bt brin­jal va­ri­eties. bari re­tains re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as well as the rights of en­sur­ing that Bt brin­jal is safe for farm­ers to cul­ti­vate and for con­sumers to eat. Given that the tech­nol­ogy was do­nated as a pub­lic good for the ben­e­fit of small farm­ers, it is ob­vi­ous that bari has no royalty obli­ga­tions to mahyco or Mon­santo. mahyco was the orig­i­nal de­vel­oper of Bt brin­jal in In­dia. But what it de­vel­oped was hy­brid, we de­vel­oped va­ri­eties. mahyco do­nated the gene it li­censed from Mon­santo to bari to cre­ate Bangladeshi Bt brin­jal cul­ti­vars in farmer-pre­ferred va­ri­eties.

"Since the tech­nol­ogy was do­nated as a pub­lic good for the ben­e­fit of small farm­ers, BARI has no royalty obli­ga­tions"

There is no profit mo­tive in the project— it in­volves new seeds de­vel­oped in the pub­lic sec­tor for the com­mon good of the wider com­mu­nity. Seeds will be dis­trib­uted at a nom­i­nal cost, far be­low the pro­duc­tion cost. Be­sides, there is no way farm­ers can be re­stricted from sav­ing seeds and re­plant­ing them. There are in­ter­na­tional stud­ies which show that GM crops have many harm­ful ef­fects. A study con­ducted on rats by French sci­en­tist Gilles-Eric Ser­alini shows the rats de­vel­oped tu­mours and other prob­lems when they were fed GM maize. There are re­ports on tox­i­c­ity of GM crops, but they are very few. On the other hand, the ma­jor­ity of the sci­en­tists sup­port GM in their stud­ies. Bangladesh does not have a tox­i­col­ogy lab­o­ra­tory, so we could not con­duct in-house tox­i­col­ogy tests for Bt brin­jal. How­ever, we re­ferred to the tox­i­col­ogy re­ports done in lab­o­ra­to­ries ac­cred­ited by the Govern­ment of In­dia. Be­fore start­ing the project, we had 13 re­ports stat­ing that Bt brin­jal is safe for con­sump­tion.

All these anti-GM ac­tivists have no sci­en­tific ba­sis for re­ject­ing it. If the Bangladesh govern­ment thinks there is a need for fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion, we would go ahead with it. If you were so con­vinced, why did you limit Bt brin­jal to 20 farm­ers? When Bt brin­jal was ap­proved for commercial cul­ti­va­tion, we had limited num­ber of seeds of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied lo­cal brin­jal va­ri­eties—Bt Ut­tara, Bt Ka­jla, Bt Nayan­tara and Bt isd006. In Jan­uary this year, the govern­ment dis­trib­uted seeds and saplings to 20 farm­ers from four dif­fer­ent agro­cli­matic zones for cul­ti­va­tion in Ja­malpur, Pabna, Rang­pur and Gazipur districts. The four zones have high fsb in­fes­ta­tion.

For the next sea­son, seed mul­ti­pli­ca­tion is al­ready be­ing un­der­taken by the Bangladesh Agri­cul­tural De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion. By the next year, we want to in­tro­duce Bt gene in five other brin­jal va­ri­eties. All these Bt brin­jal va­ri­eties are very pop­u­lar among farm­ers and are re­gion-spe­cific. In the next five years, the govern­ment plans to bring 20,000 hectares across 20 districts un­der nine Bt brin­jal va­ri­eties. How did you con­vince farm­ers to grow Bt brin­jal? The farm­ers we chose were given free seeds and mon­e­tary as­sis­tance (600 Bangladeshi takkas) to buy fer­tilis­ers and other ex­ten­sion ser­vices. We told them about the ad­van­tages of grow­ing Bt brin­jal. These are not hy­brids, so farm­ers can keep the seeds for the fu­ture the way they keep or­di­nary va­ri­ety seeds. So they do not have to keep buy­ing the seeds. The best part is that it re­quires less pes­ti­cides, so it does not pol­lute the en­vi­ron­ment and people get to eat pes­ti­cide-free brin­jals. We showed them the ex­am­ple of In­dia

"In­dia main­tains dou­ble stan­dards. It grows Bt cot­ton, con­sumes ed­i­ble oil from it, yet bans Bt brin­jal"

where farm­ers who are grow­ing Bt cot­ton have pros­pered. There are me­dia re­ports on crop fail­ure, es­pe­cially from Gazipur district. The gen­eral sow­ing sea­son for brin­jal is Oc­to­ber to De­cem­ber. It is a long du­ra­tion crop. What hap­pened with Bt brin­jal project was that the seeds were dis­trib­uted in Jan­uary. It re­sulted in late sow­ing. Due to rains in Gazipur, es­pe­cially in April, the soil ab­sorbed too much mois­ture. It re­sulted in the wilt­ing of plants. The farm­ers here are hav­ing prob­lems grow­ing the crop be­cause of the soil con­di­tion. But as many as 15 farm­ers have re­ported suc­cess.

As far as me­dia re­ports are con­cerned, jour­nal­ists ob­served the refuge (non-GM­plants grown around GM crops) and filed sto­ries based on it as­sum­ing that Bt brin­jal crop is af­fected. The jour­nal­ists may be part of the anti-GM cam­paign. When we asked them to visit our re­search sta­tion, they did not even re­spond. We have al­ready sent them a court no­tice. What is GM crop's fu­ture in Bangladesh? It is very promis­ing. Soon we will be ready with potato va­ri­eties and Golden Rice. The rice is ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied to in­tro­duce vi­ta­mins in the grain and fight mal­nu­tri­tion. Cur­rently, we are also work­ing on her­bi­cidetol­er­ant crops. With govern­ment sup­port, we see our fu­ture bright and pros­per­ous; we see our­selves mov­ing to­wards self-suf­fi­ciency.

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