Bangladeshi farmers caught in row over $600,000 GM aubergine trial

from 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
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.

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 Bt brinjal.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.”

SOURCE: The Guardian

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