The curse of Bt Brinjal

The curse of Bt Brinjal

The curse of Bt Brinjal

Pest infestations, low yields, unwanted produce and unlicensed cultivation flourish as Bt Brinjal is forced on South Asian citizens, says Eva Sirinathsinghji

A  pilot scheme for commercial cultivation of Asia’s first genetically modified (GM) Bt brinjal (eggplant), brought disappointing results for nine of the 20 farmers, as reported recently. Four varieties: Kajla, Uttara, Nayantara and ISD006, were planted in different climatic regions. Brinjal is one of Bangladesh’s most important crops both for consumption and export, making its cultivation a huge health and economic risk for the population. 

Indeed, the region is a centre of origin and genetic diversity for brinjal, and should be protected from genetic contamination as advised under the UN Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Its popularity and importance as a food crop makes it a prime target for GM proponents bent in spreading GM technologies to the nation and wider region, including India, where a moratorium is in effect. 

The Indian moratorium came after fierce opposition from various civil society groups, top scientists, state governments in brinjal growing regions, as well as citizens and environmental groups. The cultivation in Bangladesh has drawn similar controversy, with 100 civil society organisations writing to the country’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in protest. 

Ground reality

Many farmers when contacted, reported problems that included bacterial wilt and drought, despite the crop’s ability to repel the target pest, the fruit and shoot borer pest. One region, Gazipur, had a failure rate of 4 out of 5 farms, resulting in huge financial losses for the farmers.

There has been fierce campaigning by pro-GM groups to conceal these results, accusing anti-GM activists of telling lies about the failure of the crops, but this new report provides detailed information of the farmers and their fields, including photos of dying crops. 

To add to the controversy, the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) running the pilot scheme with the support of USAid and Cornell University, appear not to have followed some stipulations of its licence agreement, raising questions over the legality of the scheme. 

Stipulations included proper labelling, formulation of field production planning, field biosafety management planning, safety measures such as isolation distance management planning, border row management planning and techniques for the protection of local and indigenous varieties and wild plants. BARI admit that they did not visit the fields before planting the crops. 

The first Bt brinjal was originally developed by Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (MAHYCO), an Indian subsidiary of Monsanto, for cultivation in India, but the moratorium prevented commercialisation until an independent regulatory authority was able to carry out its own safety testing.

Since 2011, the Bt technology was transferred from Phillippines and extended to local Bangladeshi varieties and approved in 2013 despite being based on the very same safety data provided by Mahyco that India used to reject the crop, with an obvious conflict of interest. 

Toxic food

Further, the safety tests conducted by MAHYCO were limited to three months, which clearly cannot provide any insight into any longer term effects that the crop may have. Independent studies on other Bt crops have already revealed toxicity, including immune responses, internal organ damage and respiratory issues. 

Unfortunately, Bangladesh has a weak biosafety regulatory system and lacks a toxicology lab of its own, making it vulnerable to exploitation by GM corporations. Cultivation of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh also has implications for bordering nations such as India due to cross-pollination, making genetic contamination a concern not only for Bangladesh. 

Additional debate has centred on the intellectual property rights of the crop, which has been claimed to be freely owned by the Bangladeshi public institutions. However, the Bt technology is still owned by Mahyco Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company Ltd (MHSCL).

Though the seeds have been freely distributed to farmers during this pilot scheme without royalty fees, there are concerns that intellectual property rights will become an issue in the future.

According to the tripartite agreement, known as the Sathguru Agreement signed on March 14, 2005 by BARI, MAHYCO and the Sathguru Management consultant Pvt Ltd, the intellectual property right of the Bt brinjal remains with Monsanto and MAHYCO. If large-scale cultivation is permitted after the pilot scheme, hundreds of local varieties could be developed with the Bt gene to generate further new patentable GM crops.

The farmers caught up in a corporate coup on their traditional livelihood are suffering the consequences of a technology that cannot provide long-term success for their farm, health or the surrounding environment. Failure of this pilot scheme may just be a blessing the farmers need to deter them away from such schemes.