Alarming alliance of four M’s

by Farida Akhter


The Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institution is a public institution under the agriculture ministry and is obliged to serve public interest. As a public research institution, its primary task is to decide research priorities that must contribute to the benefit of the farming community, enhance the formal and informal scientific knowledge base of Bangladesh and strictly protect natural, biological and intellectual property of the people of the country. Unfortunately, the institution has miserably failed to meet to its obligation and responsibility.
The ill practice of using farmers in Bangladesh for cultivating the controversial GM food crop Bt brinjal on behalf of the multinational company Monsanto through the Maharasthra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) is a scandal indeed. These two Ms — Monsanto (US) and Mahyco (India) — are already known to farmers and the environmental activists as a global and regional threat to environment, ecology, biodiversity and biosafety, not to mention the food sovereignty. The two Ms are desperate in commercialising GMO crops in South Asia despite the potential and  known  short- and long-term harmful impacts on environment, biodiversity and human health.
The present government led by the Awami League is in its second term through a controversial election held on January 5, 2014 enjoying little political legitimacy. The country is ruled literally by brute power, coercion and silencing the opposition both on the street as well in the media. This is the most ideal political situation for multinational corporations to dump products that could otherwise not pass the regulatory barrier no matter how minimal they are, particularly for GMOs that must face the regime known as ‘precautionary principle’. This is a safeguard modern science felt compelled to protect environment, the living world and all life forms since GMOs are unpredictable and unlike other technologies, their consequences could be irreversible for the biological world.
Matia Chowdhury, the agriculture minister, has surprised many by her intense interest in commercialising GMOs and very supportive of multinational corporations instead of the interest of the people of the country. Matia has particularly supported the Bt brinjal research and approval for field-level cultivation. She distributed the saplings of Bt brinjal to 20 selected farmers in four districts on January 22, 2014. The result of the cultivation is, however, nothing but a failure, an embarrassment for a national research institution like BARI. With Monsanto and Mahyco, Matia added the third ‘M’ to the scandalous Bt brinjal story of Bangladesh, the first Asian country to cultivate GM food crop. There is nothing to take pride in it; it is, rather, a shame for a country with rich diversity in food crops.
The fourth ‘M’ came from Abdul Awal Minto (known mostly as Minto), a businessman and key figure in the opposition political party BNP. This is the most fascinating part of the Bt brinjal story of Bangladesh, demonstrating how multinational corporations operate in a country like Bangladesh with allies and beneficiaries both in the government as well as in the opposition. Minto, so far hidden behind the scenes, was now revealed by the daily New Age through  a lead news published on September 23, 2014 (‘Pvt companies preparing to market Bt brinjal seeds’).
The report says ‘Officials of agriculture ministry said that preparations were afoot for the commercial release of at least three more Bt brinjal seed varieties through private seed company Lal Teer Limited. Lal Teer chairman Abdul Awal Minto confirmed the development but refused to share the names of the three Bt brinjal seed varieties his company was on the verge of marketing’.  Minto is an adviser to Khaleda Zia, the chairperson of the BNP, the opposition party that ran government in the past. An adviser to Khaleda Zia commercialising the  highly controversial Bt brinjal will project an anti-people image of the opposition and definitely contribute to further weakening her public stand in an already precarious situation of her party and the alliance. Through change in government, if the BNP at comes to power, implies that her government will commercialise Bt brinjal, carrying forward the unfinished tasks of the present government. Both sides are against environment, ecology and most importantly biodiversity and the health of all life forms. This scenario signals a highly vulnerable situation for Bangladesh agriculture, biodiversity and food sovereignty. The alliance of four M’s, therefore, is an alarming signal for Bangladesh. Despite the bitter rivalry between these political parties, they are together in commercialising GMOs  disregarding ‘precautionary principle’ and concerns raised by the farmers and environmental activists.
The first two M’s — Monsanto and Mahyco — know very well that field-level cultivation of Bt brinjal has failed miserably with 20 farmers in four districts. Yet International Service for the Acquisition for Agro-Biotech Applications declares that in the next five years, the government of Bangladesh plans to bring 20,000 hectares, or approximately 40 per cent of the total 50,000 hectares across 20 districts under nine Bt brinjal varieties. (‘The Status of Commercialized Bt brinjal in Bangladesh. ISAAA Briefs 47/2014). While the farmers who got Bt brinjal saplings, could not get any monetary benefit and, in fact, incurred huge losses, ISAAA is still claiming on the basis of ‘previous experimental data that Bt brinjal can improve yield by at least 30 per cent and reduce the number of insecticide applications by a massive 70–90 per cent resulting in a net economic benefit of $1,868 per hectare’. This is just absurd and baseless; and that can be cooked up only  in the laboratory, not in the farmers’ fields. The failures and the economic losses have been reported by the farmers, who were given the saplings and who  cultivated Bt brinjal under the complete supervision of Bangladesh Agriculture Research Institute (BARI) research stations in four areas.
In a press conference organised by BARI on September 7, 2014, held at the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council in Dhaka, many of the farmers, who cultivated the controversial Bt brinjal demanded compensation from the government as they incurred massive losses. The farmers claimed that they suffered unbearable losses by cultivating Bt brinjal as all the plants died with the beginning of fruiting period although the government officials said that it could be a profitable crop. All the farmers reported that the government had provided them with saplings and Tk 8,000 each for cultivating Bt brinjal.  However, they incurred huge financial losses. Monsur Rahman Sarker, a farmer from Kaliganj, Gazipur said, ‘I had to count huge financial losses by cultivating Bt brinjal as I could produce brinjals worth Tk 5,000 by spending Tk 8,000 and all of my labour’. Earlier, he used to produce brinjal worth Tk.1,00,000 on one bigha (33 decimals) of land (‘BARI admits no health tests done on Bt brinjal’, September 8, 2014, The Dhaka Tribune).
The press meet, according to BARI officials, aimed at removing the ‘misunderstanding’ about Bt Brinjal among the people following a press conference organised by eight environmental, business and consumer right organisations on August 31, where seven farmers demanded compensation for their loss by cultivating Bt brinjal. To counter these reporting of the farmers about their losses, 16 Bt brinjal farmers out of 20 were brought to Dhaka for the BARI press conference held on September 7. But the farmers had to tell the true story. Eleven farmers revealed that all the plants of their fields died within two to three months after planting. Only two farmers got good crops (‘BARI press meet on Bt brinjal: Affected farmers demand compensation from govt’, September 8, The Financial Express). These brinjals were sold on the market without any labels violating the conditions of the approval of field cultivation.
It is to be noted that a tripartite agreement was signed by Mahyco, Sathguru Management Consultants Private Ltd (India) and Bangladesh Agriculture Research Institute on March 14, 2005 for the development and release of cultivable  Bt brinjal varieties in Bangladesh. It clearly states that Monsanto-Mahyco preserves all the intellectual property rights of the technology. Mahyco is a subsidiary of US-based multinational seed company Monsanto and Sathguru Management Consultants Private Ltd. is the regional coordinator of the South Asian region for the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II of USAID. The agriculture ministry confirmed that IP right of the Bt brinjal is surely of Monsanto-Mahyco’s. ‘The most striking point of the agreement is that BARI has given indemnity to Monsanto-Mahyco and Sathguru for any kind of disaster concerning Bt brinjal research.’ BARI has no right to even infuse Bt gene into a new variety (‘Monsanto’s Indian affiliate to win IP right of Bt brinjal’, February 23, 2014, The Financial Express; ‘Mahyco ‘owns’ Bt brinjal, not BARI and never the farmers!’, February 27, 2014,
Section 1.19 of the tripartite agreement, said all Bt gene is a Monsanto or Mahyco technology and the intellectual property rights of the concerned will be infringed by unauthorised distribution of products containing Bt gene.
Sub-section (c) of Section 9.2 of the deal noted that it can be terminated by the sub-licensor or Mahyco if the laws and regulations in Bangladesh do not provide assurance of protection for commercial and intellectual property rights. (‘Mahyco ‘owns’ Bt brinjal, not BARI and never the farmers!’, February 27, 2014,
Through this agreement, signed without the knowledge of farmers and the general public, Mahyco and Monsanto  own the nine genetically engineered indigenous varieties of brinjals since the companies carry the proprietary technology they own and Bangladeshi farmers lose control over their collection of these indigenous varieties. This is nothing but ‘bio-piracy’. It is hypocritical to say Monsanto has donated the seeds to BARI as ‘free’ or ‘without charge’. Through patenting, the company will be selling the seeds to the farmers who are real owners of these varieties. This opens the way for the first two Ms (the companies) to expand cultivation also through the private seed companies. In fact, this is their ultimate goal. Varieties of brinjal seeds always belonged to farmers. No one claimed any ownership over the varieties. Farmers could  collect seed varieties from neighbours, relatives and buy  local market places. There is no one to claim IPR or to say ‘I am allowing you to use my seed “without any fee or charge”’. The community seed system of the farmers has ensured the availability of seeds for agricultural production. Farmer seed system is the foundation and without which, regeneration of agriculture is impossible. The transnational companies are out to destroy the farmer seed system in order to create the corporate seed market. The  agreement between Mahyco, Sathguru and BARI, thus, is a gross violation of people’s sovereignty over natural resources.
The rivalry between the Awami League and the BNP is very bitter on the political front. Minto was jailed by the present government for his political activity as a BNP leader but it is very surprising how the multinational corporation like Monsanto can bring these rivals together to implement their marketing strategy. This unholy alliance of multinational corporation and the political parties manifests the vulnerability of the peoples of the country. In the case of policies and government actions for GMOs, there is a continuity of such disregard of political differences. They follow each other and carry forward the unfinished work. The National Biotechnology Policy 2006 was formulated by BNP-led government and the National Institute of Biotechnology Bill 2010 to introduce GM crops in the country was passed by the parliament with Awami League-led government in 2010. The Biosafety Guidelines was first drafted by the Awami League government in 1999 and was formulated in 2005 by the BNP  government to address the precautionary approach. Finally the Awami League government took the lead in actually implementing the research of GM crops such as Golden Rice, Bt. potato, saline-resistant rice without any biosafety act in place. The government has formulated the Biosafety Rules in 2012. On the basis of the rules and without any biosafety act in place, the first GM food crop introduced at the field cultivation level is Bt brinjal . Bangladesh belongs to the centre of origin of brinjals, a common food for all people across class, religion and ethnicity.
It is not unusual for any political leader to be involved in business. The BNP chairperson’s adviser Abdul Awal Minto is chairman of Lal Teer Seeds. ‘We received Bt brinjal technology from Mahyco. We are authorised and capable of using the Bt brinjal technology in Bangladesh’, Abdul Awal Minto told New Age. Minto, who owns East West Seed Ltd,  renamed as Lal Teer Ltd, claimed that he sent three hybrid brinjal varieties developed by it to Mahyco during its research stage and got the Bt brinjal technology. He admitted that Monsanto and Mahyco owned the Bt brinjal technology. However, about the profit-sharing mechanism for the tentative commercial release of Bt brinjal, Minto told New Age that it was yet to be worked out with the company that owns the Bt technology.
Quoting the BARI director general Rafiqul Islam Mondol, the New Age reported that at least seven local seeds firms sought permission from BARI and the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council to commercially produce and release Bt brinjal seeds in the country. Ultimately, it is about control over seeds and the profit earning by the companies at the cost of health, environment and farmers rights. All the four Ms ‘Monsanto-Mahyco-Matia-Minto’ represent corporate interest at the cost of people’s interest. The people will, of course,  resist such aggression.
Farida Akhter is executive director, Ubinig.

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