Farmers fooled into ‘field cultivation’ of Bt Brinjal

A failed attempt at the cost of risk to human health and environment

by Farida Akhter

Curled leaves of Bt Brinjal plants. — Nowsher Roman

THE agricultural minister on January 22 distributed Bt Brinjal saplings along with booklets among 20 farmers selected from four districts at a ceremony, organised by the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, at the Bangladesh Agricultural Council in the capital Dhaka.
‘There is no alternative to GM crops, to ensure food security for the people,’ the minister asserted in her speech as chief guest. ‘We have decided to start cultivating Bt Brinjal after different necessary tests at home and abroad. We took a long time to weigh all the pros and cons of introducing the cultivation of this variety; the government is always alert against any negative reaction to public health and the environment.’
There was, however, no indication that any precaution had been taken to protect public health and the environment at the field level. There was no representative from the health and environment ministries at the ceremony even.
The USAID Dhaka mission director was a special guest at the ceremony, sponsored by ABSP-II, USAID. The agriculture secretary was the chair of the programme, which was attended, among others, by a former caretaker government adviser who happens to be a promoter of biotechnology, the BARC executive chairman and the BARI director general.
The list of guests was proof enough that the ceremony had nothing to do with orientating the farmers selected by BARI. The farmers appeared to have no clue that they had been given the saplings of a GM crop, which needed special attention against any of its potential hazards.
Regrettably, some newspapers apparently supported the introduction of the GM crop, with one of them trumpeting that ‘Bangladesh formally started cultivation of the country’s first genetically modified crop — Bt Brinjal — today.’
The Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute picked the farmers from four districts (Jamalpur, Rangpur, Pabna and Gazipur). Four varieties of Bt Brinjal—Bt Brinjal 1 (Uttara), Bt Brinjal 2 (Kajla), Bt Brinjal 3 (Nayantara) and Bt Brinjal 4 (Bari ISD006)—were given to farmers in each area. That means all the four varieties are going to be cultivated in all the four districts by four different sets of farmers.
The coalition against Bt Brinjal, formed in December 2013 in protest at the premature approval by the National Committee on Bio-safety under the environment ministry for limited open-field cultivation, monitored the planting of the saplings. The coalition noticed two things.
First, the farmers had no idea about the saplings; it was not clear from the conversation that the coalition members had with them what they had been told at the time of distribution of the saplings. The booklets given to them explained in a very technical and sophisticated way the methods of planting the saplings and taking care of them; they didn’t seem to have read the booklets, let alone follow the instructions given therein. Hence, the ceremony in Dhaka looked more of a publicity stunt to show that Bangladesh was well prepared to join a group of 29 countries that grow GM crops, as if that was something Bangladesh needed.
Second, any opposition to Bt Brinjal was regarded as opposition to the ruling Awami League, and particularly the agricultural minister. In areas chosen for cultivation of the GM crop, local AL activists spread the word around that Bt Brinjal was the agricultural minister’s ‘child’ and, thus, no criticism or opposition would be tolerated.
I went to Bharoimari village with Nayakrishi farmers recently. The plan was to form a human chain by the farmers to create awareness among the villagers about the safety aspects of Bt Brinjal. We had contacted Tarikuzzaman Suman, 35, a young commercial vegetable farmer, the day before our visit and he had no objection to us visiting the plot where Bt Brinjal had been planted.
On March 9, when we went there and wanted to visit the plot, there was initially no resistance. The assistant agricultural officer, Abdur Rashid, was present. However, his mood changed and he got very angry after he had called ‘someone’. He would not allow Suman to accompany us to his field and said he would himself lead us there on his motorcycle. We followed him in our microbus. One UBINIG staff was with him. The officer told him, ‘Why are you making so much noise about this. The plants are not performing very well. What’s the point in resisting it?’ He also said, ‘We have to follow the government’s orders. That’s all.’
I, along with my colleagues and some journalists, saw the field. It was fenced with a synthetic fish-net; there was a bamboo-gate. The land size was 33 decimals. There was no signboard and, therefore, no way to know which variety was planted. The condition of the plants was not good. Almost over 50 per cent were drying, despite watering in the morning. Soil was wet but looked like a dry land.
As I was talking to local journalists, I got a message that local AL leaders were not allowing the human chain to take place and that they were saying that there could not be any opposition since these plants had been distributed by the agricultural minister. We did not mention anything about the agricultural ministers and were only raising awareness about its safety aspects. Soon, the Nayakrishi farmers came to the field chased by AL activists brandishing sticks. They hit several people and used abusive language against women farmers. One women farmer complained that she had never been insulted this way before.
We tried to talk to one of the leaders. He was unwilling to listen initially. However, we kept insisting. Finally, with the mediation of the journalists, it was decided that we would sit with local leaders and share our concerns. They promised to extend support if they were convinced that Bt Brinjal cultivation was harmful. Afterwards, our farmers demanded to hold the rally in front of a nearby school in Dashuria, on the highway of Pabna-Ishwardi.
The news of the attack appeared in several newspapers and prompted sharp reaction in civil society to Bt Brinjal. A group of lawyers, journalists and environmentalists visited the field sites again in Pabna on March 31. This time the plants in Sumon’s field looked fresh but the leaves were all curled, affected by pests. Sumon was not available. He had closed his shop and gone somewhere, apparently to avoid visitors. They were giving some compost in the field. The plants were too small to have fruit, although the local brinjal plants in the nearby fields had already been harvested a few times.
Then we went to the field of Amjad Hossain, basically a horticulture farmer who is widely known as Peyara (guava) Amjad, in village Bakterpur. He also cultivates Litchi. He did not have any separate land allocated for Bt Brinjal; those were planted in the Litchi garden. Peyara Amzad knew about the visit of the coalition members, so he apparently chose not to be at home.
However, other farmers came and talked to us. No one has any idea about Bt Brinjal. They only said they had been told that it would not have fruit and shoot borer pest. But what about the plant? One farmer said the plant may be infested by pest attack and the fruit would be safe from pest.
The seedlings were planted very late, only in the second week of March. An overview of the field shows the seedlings were transplanted in line with approximately 75-centimetre spacing between rows and 75cm between plants. The plants were 15-27cm high at the time. As an agricultural scientist, Dr MA Sobhan accompanied the team. He pointed out that brinjal plants in both the plots had been infested by aphid, white fly and red mite. Most of the leaves of the brinjal plants were curled due to infestation of insects and mite. The Bt Brinjal plot of Suman was relatively less affected by the insects and mite. But the scale of infestation by insects and mite in the field of Amjad Hossain was such that the plants may not survive up to bearing stage.
Interestingly, while Suman’s field can have ‘no pesticide spraying’, Amjad’s field will be sprayed with pesticide because of the litchi garden. How can they save Bt Brinjal plants from pesticides which are just under the litchi trees?
In this plot size, if they get proper performance of production they may get almost 200 kilos of brinjal. With local variety brinjal they usually harvest 2 to 3 times of that per week which means there will be enough for marketing. It is unlikely that farmers are going to consume all they are going to produce. This will have to go for marketing; otherwise the farmers will be at a loss. What are they going to do with such a huge amount of brinjal?
We asked them how these brinjal varieties can be distinguished from the normal varieties. Farmers said that they didn’t know.
Bangladeshi soil seems to be rejecting the GM crops. Farmers seem to have been cheated into believing in modern science and adopted HYV package, and thus facilitated corporate control of hybrid seeds and become dependent on fertilisers and pesticides. Now they are given false promises of protection against pest attack. It is claimed that ‘usually farmers have to spray pesticides up to 80 times in a cropping season of brinjal against a recommended dose of 25, making the vegetable highly toxic and that Bt gene insertion in brinjal makes it resistant to fruit and shoot borer that causes 50 to 70 per cent loss of brinjal yield.’
Now, the farmers who initially felt lucky to have been ‘chosen’ for Bt Brinjal feel cheated. Yet, they cannot talk about it. Farmers like Amjad, who is not a vegetable grower, said, ‘Why should we bother? We took it because the government gave it to us. If it is harmful, why should I care?’

Source: New Age