IN RAMADAN, the month of fasting of the Muslims, the demand for brinjal/eggplant/aubergine is the highest as it is one of the most popular items, beguni, for iftar, the breaking of the fast in the evening. Chhola, or black gram, peyaju, fried lentil mixed with onions, and beguni, fried aubergine mixed with gram powder. Health professionals do not recommend these fried items for empty stomach after a whole day of fasting. However, from the rich to the poor, iftar is incomplete without chhola, peyaju and beguni on the plate.
This Ramadan, which began on April 25, is different from that in all other years. The country is going through an undeclared ‘lockdown’ amid COVID-19 outbreak. On March 8, the first infection was confirmed in Bangladesh with three cases, but within a month, number of infection cases rose to more than 100 cases a day. Now since April 25, there has been a sharp increase to 400 cases a day. Statistics as of April 10 show 887 new cases in 24 hours and the total confirmed cases were 14,657 and the total deaths were 228. The situation is worsening.
The vegetables farmers, growing aubergines, have faced problems in marketing of their produce in the early part of April because of the shutdown of transports and the restricted market time. Vegetable farmers, especially those growing tomatoes, incurred huge losses. Aubergine farmers, on the other hand, initially faced difficulty in selling but as soon the market was relaxed for Ramadan, they got better prices.
UBINIG initiated a quick survey over telephone with farmers in eight districts and consumers in Dhaka to investigate how farmers were faring during this critical period with aubergines. Aubergines are sold for prices ranging from Tk 35 to Tk 80 a kilogram on the market. In normal time during Ramadan, it could be as high as Tk 100–150. However, this year, the demand is less as major iftar sellers on the roads and restaurants are closed. Yet farmers are not complaining as aubergines still are fetching ‘better’ prices compared with what other vegetables do.
Bangladesh is among the few known countries of origin of aubergines. Russian scientist Nikolai I Vavilov in 1926 was of the opinion that the aubergine centre of origin was in the Indo-Burma region, including the present-day Bangladesh. There are 248 varieties cultivated in different agro-ecological zones of the country. Bangladesh always enjoyed the diverse varieties of aubergines.
Consumers buying aubergines from the market usually show no concern about the varieties, except the size, colour and shape. Aubergines are, however, on the market not as shapes and colours, but as an industrial product with its genetic diversity. In early May, at least 26 different local varieties with beautiful names, specific to their agro-ecological locations, were found on the market. For example, in Noagaon the varieties are Alta Bulbuli, Lodha Begun, Ghia Begun, Kanai Begun, Shoila Begun, Ramchandrapuri, Jhumka etc; in Jessore, local varieties such as Makra, Bhangor, Baropata and Kata Begun are found. The price varies according to varieties as each is valued not only by the supply and demand matrix but more for taste and local culinary culture. Shingnath brinjal is sold for prices of Tk 40–50 a kilogram, Chakra, Lafa and Kata begun sell for Tk 50–100 a kilogram.
On the other hand, a few HYV varieties known as Jessori and IRRI begun were found in Jashore and Kushtia and two hybrid varieties (China-3 and Ired) were found in Kushtia and Natore. The prices of HYV aubergines was Tk 25–50, and that of hybrid was Tk 45–55 a kilogram. Commercial farmers grow the HYV varieties on a large scale while the small farming households grow local varieties on a smaller scale in their small pieces of land. Interestingly, they are readily available on the market and have a good demand. Some local varieties grown to earn additional cash for the farmers, therefore, appear on the market.
The HYV and hybrid varieties need application of fertilisers and pesticides. The local varieties, as they are grown on a small scale and not as monocrop farming, do not require the application of pesticides. Small-scale farmers cannot afford such cost. Many local varieties are pest-resistant such as Jhumka, Shingnath, Tal Begun, Ramchandrapuri, Altabulbuli, Ghritta Kanchan, Dim Begum, and Hazari Begun etc. Local varieties having low pest resistance need a limited use of pesticide, as farmers say. In some local varieties, according to the farmers, pesticides are needed in the fields where neighbouring fields have HYV varieties that were sprayed with heavy doses of pesticides; local varieties of aubergines are, therefore, infested with pest attack.
The promotion of HYV varieties is a government policy and detrimental to the maintenance of genetic diversity that is very important for the economy of subsistence farmers and is contrary to the policy of providing safe food for consumers. Such a policy also contradicts the government responsibility to conserve biodiversity. The policy or subsidies and support by the agriculture authorities go only for HYV/Hybrid varieties. Therefore, a large number of commercial farmers use their land for cultivation of HYV/hybrid aubergines. Many farmers having small pieces of land cultivate as many local aubergine varieties because of their taste and non-requirement of any external inputs.
In 2014, the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute has introduced four different genetically modified aubergines (Bt brinjal) to resist fruit and shoot borer pest, thereby reducing the need to use pesticides despite protests from the international scientists, environmental and farmers’ groups because of environmental, health and biosafety concerns. Unfortunately, the Cornell Alliance for Science, a public relations campaign to promote genetically engineered food and pesticides is promoting the findings of research conducted jointly by the International Food Policy Research Institute and Bangladesh’s ministry of agriculture. According to this research, ‘Bt brinjal has performed well in the Bangladeshi market due to its high quality and the lower levels of pesticide used in cultivation. Smallholder farmers have rapidly adopted the crop, from just 20 in 2014 to more than 27,000 across all districts of Bangladesh’. On the contrary, an UBINIG report showed failures of the plants to produce fruits and use of 35 types of pesticides, including acaricide (which kills ticks and mites), insecticide, and fungicide, sprayed several times in Bt brinjal fields under the direction of the supervising officials. It is to be noted that the Cornell Alliance for Science receives $12 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The scientific research on pest attacks in aubergines show that fruit and shoot borer Leucinodes orbonalis Guen is the key pest of aubergines in Bangladesh. The intensity of infestation by FSB may go over 90 per cent and estimated the yield loss up to 86 per cent. But these scientific researches never recommended the need for genetically modifying aubergines to aubergine FSB.
An experiment conducted by BARI with 24 aubergine varieties to find out the suitable resistant aubergine variety against aubergine FSB. The findings showed that the most effective and cheapest method to save crops from FSB was to grow resistant varieties. High yielding varieties are more susceptible to aubergine FSB and low-yield varieties are less susceptible. In percentage of infested fruits, aubergine varieties Jhumki 1 (9 per cent), Jhumki 2 (10 per cent), were highly resistant. Islampuri-3 (20 per cent), BL-34 (19 per cent) and Muktakeshari (18.99 per cent) were fairly resistant. Singnath long (30 per cent) and Singnath-4 (27 per cent) were tolerant aubergine FSB.
Since 2014, in its field investigation, UBINIG has found the Department of Agricultural Extension imposing Bt brinjal on farmers often with claims without any scientific evidence on its agronomic value. The instrument of imposition accompanied by providing some inputs and cash supports. Many farmers tried the GMO Bt brinjal variety because of the pressure of agricultural extension officers, but once taken and with bitter experience of performance failure, the farmers were reluctant to cultivate as they experienced negatively. Second, despite the claim of the GMO promoters of reduced pesticide use, farmers in fact had to use pesticides. The GMO is specific to FSB, but does not protect the plant and fruit from other pest attacks.
During the COVID-19 outbreak related ‘general holiday’, UBINIG investigated if farmers were bringing Bt brinjal to the local market. Bt brinjal seeds (Bt brinjal 1, 2, 3 and 4) were given to farmers in different areas during the period starting from December 2019 to January, 2020. If the claim of International Food Policy Research Institute and the ministry of agriculture is true that 27,000 smallholding farmers were cultivating Bt brinjal across all districts of Bangladesh, then it is reasonable to expect that the new genetically modified crop should be on the market and would be visible. The markets in eight districts and in Dhaka showed no presence of any Bt brinjal in late April–early May 2020. None of sellers in the market could identify any Bt brinjal in their stock. No buyer in Dhaka market could identify any auergine, which would be a GMO.
Could it be that those were without any labels? In that case, it is a clear case of violation of government direction about GMOs in the country. We know that the field cultivation of genetically modified aubergine (also known as Bt brinjal) was conditional. In October 2013, the National Committee on Biosafety imposed seven conditions to be followed in field cultivation. One of these conditions was labelling — if Bt brinjal is brought to the market, it must be labelled, ie, it should be clearly stated that it is GMO. The director general of BARI only agreed to label the sacks as ‘poison-free GM brinjal’.
Bangladesh Food Safety Authority member Monzur Morshed Ahmed said in a workshop that in Bangladesh, law makes it mandatory for GM food labels to declare their identities but it was being flouted at the marketing stage. Labelling requirements established by regulations are currently being sidestepped. The BFSA chairman said, ‘Every product, be it packaged, processed or imported, must have a declaration stating whether this is GM or not. We will issue a directive in this regard soon’. No aubergine is found in the market with label of Bt brinjal.
So the claims of Bt brinjals cultivated by thousands of farmers are either false or a stark violation of the law and the government directives. Is there any authority to check on this aspect? In the case of COVID-19, could GMOs cause more harm as it concerns food systems and, therefore, immunity as well as biosafety and biosecurity? These questions are always silenced and remain unanswered.
Farida Akhter is the executive director of UBINIG and organiser of Nayakrishi Andolon.
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