India Bt brinjal: Bangladesh's model not fit enough for adoption

When India is considering commercialising Bt brinjal in India by first studying Bangladesh’s “successful” model, the neighbour country itself seems to be facing a huge crisis because of the crop.

“I was told by the agriculture officers that I would get a high yield of brinjal that will be devoid of insects. The fact is just the reverse. There were many pests and little bearing of fruits. I have done whatever they advised. I used irrigation, applied fertiliser, sprayed pesticides insecticide. But the result was just loss,” Babul Hossain, a farmer in Bangladesh’s Pabna district told a team of researchers.

UBINIG, a local NGO that works on policy for research and development, studied the cultivation of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh and found that none of the first-round farmers wanted to cultivate it the second time. Their report ‘Bt brinjal is under Life Support’ revealed that Bangladesh could neither make the transgenic crop free from pesticides nor profitable even after two rounds of cultivation.

The researchers surveyed all the 19 districts where Bt brinjal was cultivated for the second time and interviewed 110 farmers. Another farmer, Abul Hayat from Narsinghdi district, said, “The crop was not at all good. I incurred huge losses.”

How it all started

On October 28, 2013, Bangladesh’s National Committee on Bio-safety (NBC) approved the cultivation of four GM varieties of brinjal—Kajla, Uttara, Nayantara and ISD006. They have a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria that makes them resistant to fruit and shoot borer (FSB) pest, which is common in South and Southeast Asia. They also have Cry1Ac protein gene, which was provided by India-based Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company) and trans-national Monsanto under the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project (ABSP). The US Agency for International Development funded it.

While India imposed an indefinite moratorium on the cultivation of Bt brinjal developed by Mahyco in February 2010, the Bangladesh government distributed seeds and saplings of the transgenic crop to four agro-climatic zones in January 2013.

Broken promises

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry approved the petition of Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) to cultivate Bt brinjal on few conditions. One was to form a field biosafety committee comprising an agriculture officer from the extension, regional BARI scientists, district- and division-level officers from the Ministry of Environment for Biosafety. But, only one agriculture extension officer looks after all aspects of production.

Another was that the authorised ministry must take action if there is a negative impact of Bt brinjal on environment and public health. But, no such action was taken or checks conducted.

One more condition was that the concerned institution must label the brinjal before it’s sold in the market. But, after the first round of cultivation, the brinjal was being sold with the non-transgenic variety and without any label specifying that it was a genetically modified.

Now, 20 per cent farmers say that they will plant the GM seeds only if BARI and Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) provide all the support they had promised. The report says that this is because 74 per cent of Bt brinjal farmers incurred losses. For example, Md. Abul Bashar, a farmer in Jessore district, said he spent 25,000 taka (Rs 21,613.58) to cultivate Bt brinjal on 9,583 sq ft of land. He could only sell his produce, which weighed 1,119 kg, for 12,000 taka (Rs 10,374.52).

False claims, information

BARI and DAE have tried all ways possible to make high quality Bt brinjal field cultivation a success. But, the researchers claim that the efforts are based on false assumptions, information and claims. Akhter says, “We are tired of listening to the false claims and propaganda of success. It is very unfortunate that the promoters of Bt brinjal are playing with our farmers who have been cultivating it throughout the year.”

The findings showed that some of the farmers, who figured on the list of Bt brinjal cultivators, didn’t ever sow the crop. Farida Akhter, executive director of UBINIG Bangladesh, says, “The government distributed seeds to farmers every year during the season (October-March). But, the number of farmers mentioned in the Frontiers article, (27,012,) is an exaggeration. The BARI sources say only 6,390 farmers have been given the seeds by DAE. There is no instance of farmers buying or receiving seeds from any other source except DAE.”

Even the pest-free claim falls short. The BARI field trials claim a 98 per cent reduction in pest attack in comparison to non-GM brinjal. The report says, “There was heavy infestation of whitefly and aphid in Bt brinjal. Also, pesticides, fungicide and other insecticides were regularly sprayed in huge quantities.

India to decide

It’s India’s turn now. The Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), in its latest meeting on September 20, requested the Bengaluru-based Indian Institute of Horticultural Research, a constituent lab of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research to obtain “relevant information and data on the post commercial release effects of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh” from BARI.

GEAC took this step after Mahyco, a developer of transgenic brinjal, sought permission for large-scale environmental release and demonstration of Bt brinjal. Kavita Kuruganti, who is associated with Association for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), says, “Bt brinjal developers didn’t do a single additional test to prove the safety of GM crops since the moratorium was placed. But the regulators seem keener than Mahyco in commercialising it in India.”