Bt brinjal controversy hots up in Bangladesh

Bt Brinjal farmers divided between green activists opposing GM crops and government which claims the crop experiment was fairly suiccessful

By Reaz Ahmad
Published: Friday 05 September 2014

Activists have questioned government authorities for showing haste in propagating Bt brinjal (Photo courtesy Ubinig)

More than eight months after Bangladesh began Bt brinjal cultivation the government and anti-GM activists are locked in a war of words. Neither of the two groups is showing any sign of backing down.

In the latest development, the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) in Dhaka has invited the 20 farmers involved in cultivation of GM brinjal to tell their story to journalists on Sunday. The move is reportedly meant to counter the green groups who invited seven of these farmers to talk about their crop failure and demand compensation.

The anti-GM protesters were jubilant when a Bangladesh court blocked the move to release South Asia's first genetically modified (GM) food crop in September last year. But their happiness was short-lived because within weeks the government succeeded in obtaining a court order favouring the release of Bt Brinjal.

The Bangladesh government released Bt brinjal on October 30 same year and handed over saplings of the four GM brinjal varieties to a select group of 20 farmers on January 22 this year.

The move to release Bt brinjal in Bangladesh came at a time when 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 people's opposition.

One thought the debate over Bt brinjal in Bangladesh so many months,  but the fight between pro- and anti-GM lobbies has, in fact, escalated.

Over half of these 20 farmers are upbeat about the yields they got from the maiden cultivation of Bt brinjal that they say do not require pest-killing sprays thanks to a bacterial gene expression that keeps fruit and shoot borers (FSB) at bay.

FSB is the most destructive insect pest for brinjal in South and Southeast Asia. A large percentage of brinjal does not make it to the market because of FSB infestation that can render a high 70 percent of the crop unusable. Overdose and improper application of pesticides on brinjal to fight FSB, make these vegetables harmful to consumers.

But the remaining (some say seven, some say nine out of the 20 farmers) have been complaining about poor yields they got from the Bt Brinjal cultivation. Green groups gave voice to them by arranging press briefing and bringing in the farmers from the countryside to the national capital.

Director General of BARI, who pushed Bt brinjal cultivation initiative, Md. Rafiqul Islam Mondal, does not agree that Bangladesh's GM crop pilot has gone awry.

Mondal explained, "Bt brinjal is no silver bullet. It's meant for resisting FSB. That trait doesn't necessarily mean Bt brinjal will not be susceptible to bacterial wilt or for that matter, certain other vulnerabilities."  (See 'What's the fuss about Bt brinjal').

Green groups like Ubinig, led by Farida Akhter, say the government rushed into introducing GM food crops in Bangladesh and all the prerequisites have not been followed properly, as is expected, while pursuing such frontier sciences.

Shahjahan is one of the 20 farmers chosen by the government for first farmers' field trial of Bt brinjal. He is from central district of Jamalpur.

Shahjahan gave three reasons why he did not get expected yields from Bt brinjal.

"They (government) gave us the plants late in the season (in January instead of October-November); the plants were kept in very dry conditions prior to being supplied to me; and the variety that I got is not suitable for my type of soil. Had they supplied me Kajla (variety) instead of Noyontara it would've clicked well."
Shahjahan, a quite understanding person, who doesn't want to see himself in either of the leagues of the protagonists or the antagonists, said, "There is no question of compensation for whatever crop losses some of us have suffered. We actually got both financial and accessories' supports from the government in the first place," the farmer said.

He is willing to try out Bt brinjal one more time provided government gives him quality seeds/plants at the right time in right condition.

Report: The status of commercialized Bt Brinjal in Bangladesh

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