IN SOUTH Asia, Bangladesh is taking ‘pride’ to be the first country to introduce GMO food crops, despite protests from farmers, community organisations and scientists. India and Pakistan have introduced GM cotton and have faced irreversible technological, ecological and social problems including farmer suicides. Besides, the questions of technological viability of the GMOs in this bio-geographical area known as the origin of biodiversity, the most important question for Bangladesh is whether it has the necessary and implementable regulatory mechanisms such as Biosafety Guidelines. The answer is, ‘No. Not yet’.
In the 7th Annual South Asia Biosafety Conference held during September 14 - 16, 2019 in Dhaka, Dr Abdur Razzaque, agriculture minister said that ‘Bangladesh is committed to ensure biosafety as an adaptor of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity’. According to a press release, he inaugurated the workshop and said, ‘We have already adapted and enacted the ‘Biosafety Rules of Bangladesh, 2012’ and ‘Biosafety Guideline of Bangladesh, 2008’… We are committed to ensure biosafety’. This is 2019, and GM food crop such as Bt brinjal has already been released for cultivation in 2014. Instead of committing to ensure biosafety guidelines, he could have cited the example of how such guideline and rules had been implemented when Bt brinjal cultivation was implemented in farmer’s field and that biosafety measures are already in place. But he could not do so. The minister’s remarks were pure rhetoric in the air. The case of Bt brinjal demonstrates that Bangladesh utterly failed to ensure biosafety protection measures and remains a bad example where biosafety measures and rules have been given priority.
Surprisingly, such an ‘important (?)’ conference did not get enough media coverage. Except in one or two English language newspapers, quoting a brief press release, this conference ended without attracting attention of many stakeholders in the country. Was it intended to be so?
Bangladesh, as a country to release the genetically modified Bt brinjal for cultivation at the farmer’s fields, ensuring biosafety should not only be a commitment; it should have become an example to other countries how the Biosafety guidelines are implemented. On the first day, (14 September, 2019) Mohammed Solaiman Haider of the Department of Environment presented an update on biosafety regulation in Bangladesh. It is not clear if there was any reflection on what actually happened with the Bt brinjals cultivated in farmers’ field in complying with the approval conditions imposed by the National Committee on Biosafety. Mr Haider’s presentation of updates in March 2019 on Biosafety Regulation only mentions ‘limited environmental release of Bt Eggplant’ as R&D endorsed by NCB, so far. No more information. This does not match with the two other papers presented on Bt brinjal on September 16, 2019 in the SABC2019. These were on: i) impacts of Bt brinjal (eggplant) technology in Bangladesh by Dr Akhter Ahmed of International Food Policy Research Institute, Bangladesh, and ii) bringing Bt Eggplant to resource-poor vegetable farmers in Bangladesh and the Philippines by Dr Tony Shelton of Cornell University, United States. These papers showed cultivation of Bt brinjal by large number of farmers. None of these papers were addressing the issues of biosafety. Why? Isn’t it violating the Cartagena protocol and also bypassing the country’s biosafety rules and guidelines?
If we enquire further into the matter, the report published by IFPRI on the ‘Impacts of Bt brinjal (Eggplant) Technology in Bangladesh’ does not have any section to discuss the biosafety issues of Bt brinjal technology and does not even any mention of the conditions given by the NCB of the ministry of environment and forest at the time of approval in 2013. The report gives information on pest infestation and insecticide use, production and yield, marketing, costs and revenues etc., but nothing on biosafety measures. Bt brinjal is not just like any other vegetable, it is a GMO and needs biosafety guidelines to be followed strictly. Higher yield cannot overweigh the need for biosafety measures.
IFPRI study does not even mention any precautionary measures being taken or not taken by the farmers. Does IFPRI study wants to show that if Bt brinjal is proved to be profitable, uses less pesticide, brings more revenue to the farmers, then the questions of biosafety should be forgotten? Then how our agriculture minister is going to keep his commitment to biosafety?
In the UBINIG study (2019) ‘Adoption and abandoning of Bt brinjal cultivation: Farmers’ experience survey’, it was found that farmers, who were given Bt brinjal seeds/seedlings in the second round in 2014, were not told anything that it is a GMO. However, the Department of Agricultural Extension officers asked them to take some precautionary measures. These were Border-row management with non-bt varieties and the isolation distance. The Border row management was followed by 94 per cent farmers only when directed by the DAE officials and isolation distance was maintained by 68 per cent of the farmers. The standard isolation distance suggested by BARI booklet is 100 x 80 cm between rows and plants. The maximum distance described by interviewed farmers between plants was 91.44 cm, minimum distance was 30.48 cm. The average distance followed was 61 cm’. As a ‘new seed’ the farmers did it only when the DAE officials asked them to do so. We do not have any information whether with 27,000 farmers, as claimed by IFPRI, this was at all ensured. The approval of Bt brinjal by NCB had another condition. This was, ‘In order to ensure monitoring of biosafety measures in the places of limited cultivation BARI must form a field level biosafety committee with the local Agricultural Extension Officer, the Scientific Officer of BARI experimental centre, the district divisional officer of Environment Directorate and Upazilla Administrative Officer and submit to NCB’. No such committee was formed and no one was found to be aware of such monitoring. The ministry of environment never came up with any report of compliance of biosafety guidelines in the Bt brinjal fields.
The ministry of environment and forest is the national authority and national focal point to implement Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity. It established a National Technical Committee on Biosafety in order to ensure environmentally safe management of modern biotechnological development including research and development, introduction, use and trans-boundary movement of GMOs/LMOs. The Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute took very quick steps to apply in 2013 and to go through the approval process of first genetically modified food crop Bt brinjal, in the midst of concerns and protests by national and international scientists and environmental groups. The NCB on biosafety under the ministry of environment passed the approval on October 30, 2013 releasing four varieties of Bt brinjal, which is infused with Fruit and Shoot Borer pest-resistant gene. These are Bt brinjal-1 (Uttara), Bt brinjal-2 (Kajla), Bt brinjal-3 (Nayantara), and Bt brinjal-4 (Iswardi local) (The Daily Star, October 29, 2013).
Bt brinjal has been developed by inserting a gene cry1Ac from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis through an Agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer. Bangladesh is a target country for the Bt brinjal under the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II and the ‘Monsanto technology’ — a joint venture with Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company. The ABSP II is funded by USAID and led by Cornell University. The Bt brinjal is actually a piracy of the local variety brinjals to be genetically modified for patenting by Monsanto-Mahyco partnership.
The Bt brinjal is promoted through the Feed the Future South Asia Eggplant Improvement Partnership, a collaboration between the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, the University of the Philippines at Los Banos, Cornell University, the Cornell Alliance for Science and the US Agency for International Development. Bangladesh soil is only used to cultivate the Bt brinjal without following any biosafety regulations and showing false and manipulated results to get recognition at a global level.
Bangladesh failed to show its preparedness to handle GMOs and to ensure regulatory mechanism that can safeguard in the handling and use of all GMOs/LMOs, that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and can pose risks to human health. The ministry of environment does not even recognise its role to see, if the biosafety precautionary measures are complied with and if there is any threat to environment, biodiversity and human health.
1. India: Failed promises of GM Bt cotton, GM Watch, September 2018 and Ill-intention behind BtCotton seed pack-up.” Technology Times, 29 Apr. 2012
2. Presentation Mohammed Solaiman Haider, Progress of regulatory regime in Bangladesh, Department of Environment, Project Director, Implementation of the national Biosafety Framework, Bangladesh March 2019
3. UBINIG ‘Adoption’ & abandoning of Bt brinjal cultivation: Farmers’ Experience Survey: On farm Trials on Bt brinjal Varieties during 2014-15; January, 2019, unpublished.
Farida Akhter is the executive director of UBINIG and organiser of Nayakrishi Andolon.
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