Risky pro­mo­tion

The Bangladesh gov­ern­ment is set to ex­pand cul­ti­va­tion of con­tro­ver­sial GM brin­jal

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS - REAZ AHMED DHAKA |

THE DE­BATE over South Asia’s first com­mer­cially re­leased ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied (GM) crop is un­likely to die down any time soon. A week after anti-GM groups in Bangladesh de­manded a ban on the farm­ing and mar­ket­ing of Bt brin­jal cit­ing in­ad­e­quate re­search on its im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment and hu­man health, the Bangladesh Agri­cul­tural Re­search In­sti­tute (bari), on Septem­ber 7, de­clared plans to ex­pand the cul­ti­va­tion of Bt brin­jal.

The two camps ear­lier came face to face at a press meet or­gan­ised by the Bangladesh En­vi­ron­men­tal Lawyers’ As­so­ci­a­tion (bela) in Dhaka on Au­gust 31,where bela and other anti-GM groups, in­clud­ing ubinig and Bangladesh Paribesh An­dolan, de­nounced the in­tro­duc­tion of Bt brin­jal. They claimed that hardly five to six farm­ers who grew the crop had a good har­vest.To counter this, bari brought in as many as 16 farm­ers from across the coun­try who grew Bt brin­jal. It claimed that 11 of them got good yields, while

ad­mit­ting that the re­main­ing nine did not be­cause of prob­lems of bac­te­rial wilt and de­lay in sow­ing.

Seeds of con­tro­versy

The Bangladesh gov­ern­ment re­leased Bt brin­jal on Oc­to­ber 30,2013,and be­came the 28th coun­try in the world that grows one or more GM crops. On Jan­uary 22 this year, bari handed over saplings of four Bt brin­jal va­ri­eties to 20 farm­ers se­lected from four agro-eco­log­i­cal zones of the coun­try in the first phase of field tri­als (see ‘Un­easy num­bers’). The decision to re­lease Bt brin­jal in Bangladesh came even as two other Asian coun­tries—In­dia and the Philip­pines—hav­ing the same GM crop (Bt Brin­jal) tech­nol­ogy ready in hand re­frained from do­ing so be­cause of le­gal hur­dles and pub­lic op­po­si­tion.

Eight months after Bangladesh be­gan its Bt brin­jal cul­ti­va­tion, the gov­ern­ment and anti-GM ac­tivists are still locked in a war of words. Nei­ther of the two groups is show­ing any sign of re­lent­ing.

Amid the up­roar, bari di­rec­tor-gen­eral Mo­ham­mad Rafiqul Is­lam Mon­dal in­formed the me­dia on Septem­ber 7 that the gov­ern­ment plans to widen Bt brin­jal farm­ing by dis­tribut­ing saplings to another 100 farm­ers this win­ter. This is a five-fold in­crease from the first batch.

Farida Akhtar, one of the founders of ubinig, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that pro­motes or­ganic farm­ing in Bangladesh, ex­presses con­cern over the news. “On what ba­sis is the gov­ern­ment ex­pand­ing GM crops? Has it not seen how poorly Bt brin­jal has fared? ”she asks ,and adds that those who are cam­paign­ing against the crop are be­ing branded “col­lab­o­ra­tors or lack­eys” of com­pa­nies sell­ing pes­ti­cides.

Bt brin­jal: boon or bane?

Bt brin­jal does not re­quire farm­ers to spray pes­ti­cides as it has been mod­i­fied to keep fruit and shoot borer (fsb) at bay. fsb is the most de­struc­tive in­sect pest for brin­jal in South and South­east Asia, and fsb in­fes­ta­tion ren­ders as much as 70 per cent of the crop un­us­able. Over­dose and im­proper ap­pli­ca­tion of pes­ti­cides in brin­jal to fight fsb is harm­ful for con­sumers too.

The farm­ers present at the press meet had a mixed re­sponse to Bt brin­jal. While some ex­pressed com­plete sat­is­fac­tion in their first ex­pe­ri­ence with the GM crop, oth­ers com­plained of in­suf­fi­cient yields.

“Some peo­ple used to stalk my field and warned me not to feed Bt brin­jal to my chil­dren. They also warned me not to sell the brin­jal in the mar­ket,” says Mansur Ahmed Sarkar, a farmer from Gazipur. Haidul Is­lam, another farmer, had a bit­ter ex­pe­ri­ence as all the Bt brin­jal plants he had grown wilted ahead of time.

Mon­dal ad­mit­ted that there was a de­lay in dis­tribut­ing the saplings and added that bari would dis­trib­ute the next round of seeds in time. He al­leged that some of the farm­ers could not take proper care of their fields be­cause of con­stant threats from anti-GM groups. A few farm­ers agreed, but re­fused to take names.

Mon­dal dis­agrees that Bangladesh’s first en­counter with the GM crop has gone awry. “Bt Brin­jal is not a sil­ver bul­let.It is meant to re­sist fsb. This does not nec­es­sar­ily mean that Bt Brin­jal will not be sus­cep­ti­ble to bac­te­rial wilt or for that mat­ter, cer­tain other vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties,” he ex­plains.

Anti-GM groups like ubinig are of the view that the gov­ern­ment rushed with the in­tro­duc­tion of GM crops. Shah­ja­han, a farmer from the cen­tral dis­trict of Ja­malpur, gave Down To Earth three rea­sons why he did not get ex­pected yields from Bt Brin­jal. “They [gov­ern­ment] gave us the seeds late in the sea­son [ Jan­uary in­stead of Oc­to­ber-Novem­ber]; th­ese were kept in very dry con­di­tions prior to dis­tri­bu­tion; and the va­ri­ety that I got is not suit­able for the type of soil in my field.Had they sup­plied me Ka­jla va­ri­ety in­stead of Nayan­tara, it would have grown well, ”he says.

Shah­ja­han does not want to count him­self in ei­ther of the camps in the Bt brin­jal de­bate. “There is no ques­tion of com­pen­sa­tion for what­ever crop losses some of us have suf­fered. We have al­ready got both fi­nan­cial and ma­te­rial support from the gov­ern­ment, ”he says.

As the de­bate over the GM crop rages, Shah­ja­han is will­ing to try out Bt Brin­jal one more time pro­vided the gov­ern­ment gives him qual­ity seeds/plants at the right time and in the right con­di­tion.

Farm­ers take out a rally in Gazipur protest­ing Bt brin­jal

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