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Release of Bt-Brinjal in Bangladesh: A Threat to the Region

Tushar Chakraborty(chakraborty.tushar@gmail.com) is a molecular biologist at the CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Biology. 

Despite the indefinite moratorium imposed on the cultivation of Bt-Brinjal in India and a ban on its field trials in Philippines, Bangladesh has gone ahead with the commercial release of the genetically modified vegetable. With this move, the region, considered to be the centre of origin and diversity of brinjal, now stands exposed to transgenic contamination of the indigenous varieties of this common vegetable.

The battle to promote genetically modified (GM) crops in south Asia and south-east Asia has gained momentum. The most visible warriors in this battle are agricultural biotech companies, who monopolise seed markets, and various Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs). But not so visible is the role played by the US state agencies, such as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and state-supported or extramurally funded research institutions in countries targeted by the biotech companies.

Curiously, major political parties and their frontal organisations – aligned with either the left or right ideology -- have not grasped the machinations of these biotech corporations.  Rather political instability or turmoil is providing a window of opportunity to these organisations to push through their agenda. The decision of the outgoing government of Bangladesh to allow limited commercial cultivation of Bt-Brinjal, just a few months before the general elections, is a case in point. On 29 September, 2013 responding to a public interest litigation, the High Court of Bangladesh directed the government to  hold back the release of  Bt-Brinjal in the absence of an in-depth assessment  of  the possible health risks. “The court ordered the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), agriculture secretary and health secretary to submit a progress report within three months after conducting independent research focusing on the health safety issues in line with the GM food standards set by the Codex Alimentarius commission, an organisation founded by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO)”(Tribune Report: 2013).  These observations were disregarded and permission was granted to the BARI on 29 October, 2013 ‒ a day when the nation was paralysed by a 72 hour strike called by the major opposition party.

Bangladesh becomes the first country in south Asia to allow the cultivation of transgenic Bt-Brinjal. The Sheikh Hasina government cleared limited scale cultivation, with some conditions, of four varieties of GM eggplant for four different agro-climatic zones, all bordering different Indian states. The borders between Bangladesh and India are not impermeable; in addition to the seeds slipping in illegally, the birds, insects, rivers and wind ‒who do not observe political borders‒ could also lead to gene contamination, making the moratorium in India practically redundant. If we are not alert to this risk of gene flow and contamination, sooner or later, this may even be cited as a reason for demanding environmental release of Bt-Brinjal in India, as it happened with Bt-Cotton in the past.

 

Indefinite Moratorium on Bt-Brinjal

The development of Bt-Brinjal was primarily carried out by Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) – partly-owned by the US-based corporation Monsanto. The Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) on 14 October, 2009 declared Bt-Brinjal to be safe for “environmental release”. However, the proposed introduction of the first genetically modified vegetable generated a fierce debate in India. “Public consultations” with stakeholders were organised by the Centre for Environment Education (CEE), Ahmedabad in seven Indian cities, at the behest of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, to discuss the pros and cons of the commercialisation of Bt- Brinjal (Ministry of Environment and Forests: 2010) ;  an example of democratic decision-making in this case. About 6,000 participants debated these issues in public meetings. In addition to its impact on human health and biodiversity, issues such as appropriate method of pest management, economy and livelihood of farming community and a whole gamut of approval and regulatory processes were discussed. Finally, a moratorium was placed from 9 February, 2010 on Bt-Brinjal cultivation. It was a major setback for Mahyco and Monsanto. It is a little known fact in India that after a moratorium was declared here, Mahyco tried its luck in Philippines and facing another road block, shifted its efforts to capture markets in Bangladesh.

India was initially nurtured and chosen as the preferred destination for releasing Bt-Brinjal,   which contains genes from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that produces an insecticidal toxin, due to its vast market and weak agricultural economy. GM seed companies knew that if India somehow succumbed to Bt-Brinjal, then global doors will be opened to the GM food crop. Although Mahyco and Monsanto were in the forefront, the programme to develop  genetically engineered crops and promote their commercialisation was supported by  “the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II, a USAID-funded consortium of public and private sector institutions managed by Cornell University”.(Jagran Josh: 2013)  Monsanto and USAID, operating side by side, gradually created a support group among  plant scientists, netted apex agricultural research institutes through generous funding and buttressed  some top political leaders. This operation has been going on since the mid-90s. Wikileaks has shown the extent of the US political pressure on India to allow the commercialisation of Bt-Brinjal.

But despite all these efforts, vehement protests at the grass root level and divided opinion expressed by the experts together with CEE intervention led to an indefinite moratorium. PM Manmohan Singh openly sided with Monsanto and tried to lift the ban but failed. The Science and Technology portfolio changed hand many times in the last four years, but thanks to public protests and alertness, the ban on Bt-Brinjal cultivation has stayed. A joint parliamentary committee  and a competent technical expert committee (TEC) appointed by the Supreme Court of India  recommended an indefinite moratorium on field trials of Bt-transgenics.

 

Attempt to introduce Bt-Talong in Phillipines

Against the backdrop of such resistance in India, Mahyco-Monsanto attempted to introduce  Bt-Eggplant  in Philippines in 2012.  Philippines  was apparently considered a soft target, as it had already succumbed to Bt-Corn cultivation in 2002. But alert citizenry, environmental groups and the courts in Philippines thwarted the Bt-Talong operation (brinjal in Filipino) at a very early stage. NGOs such as Greenpeace South-east Asia and Magsasaka at Siyentipiko sa Pagpapaunlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG) and a few individuals asked the Supreme Court to issue the “writ of kalikasan”. The court then sent the petition to the Court of Appeals.

When the University of Philippines at Los Banos (UPLB), a partner in the field trials wanted to stop the court proceedings by invoking the right to academic freedom to conduct experiments, the court overruled its objections.  In addition to the local experts, the University of Philippines brought Professor P. J. Davis of Cornell University, US as a witness.   This exposed the involvement of USAID.   The trial generated a lot of heat and fury in the Manila courtroom. Sensing defeat, the Bt-Talong field trials lobby shamelessly started delaying the court verdict. When the verdict finally came out on May 2013, the Court of Appeals ordered a “permanent halt to field trials of Bt-Talong and to  “protection, perseveration, rehabilitation and restoration of the environment in accordance with the judgment. This is perhaps the strongest indictment against a GM- food crops in a court room” (Chakraborty: 2013).  After this defeat, the battleground shifted to Bangladesh.

 

Bt-Brinjal in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh, a NGO named UBINIG, responsible for the establishment of  one of the biggest community seed banks in the country, is at the forefront of anti-Bt-Brinjal protests. According to its director Farida Akhter, the main argument used by the GM lobby was that the crop loss caused by the shoot and fruit borer, a common pest, was between 50 to 70% yearly. Though field research has proved that this figure is quite arbitrary and inflated, the BARI used this argument to lobby for Bt-Brinjal. If cultivation on full-scale is permitted, then this will allow the Monsanto and its associates to use hundreds of local varieties of brinjal to develop the GM food crop and then patent it. This will amount to biopiracy. Akhtar alleged that to carry out this operation,  the USAID influenced the ruling parties  to table a bill called "National Institute of Biotechnology Bill-2010" in the Bangladesh Parliament.  If the bill becomes an act then “the National Institute of Biotechnology is going to be an authority to set standards for highly controversial genetically modified (GM) crops and foods in Bangladesh”. (Akhter: 2010)  This implies that the decision-making process will be controlled by the bureaucrats alone, and there would be no checks and balances.

Bangladesh grows several native varieties of brinjal. As the vegetable is largely cross-pollinated, transgenic contamination poses a big problem in protecting the natural biodiversity as well as local varieties of brinjal. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety recognises the importance of protecting centres of origin and centres of genetic diversity. Bangladesh, as a party to the Cartagena Protocol and a centre of origin and diversity of brinjal, should therefore be cautious and not approve commercialisation of genetically engineered variety of brinjal.

When we look at the strategy of the multinational biotechnology companies in this region, the plan laid out by the agribusiness lobby and the US becomes quiet clear. Bangladesh is being targeted for these operations by USAID, as it does not have the adequate infrastructure for implementation of GM crop field trials and the biosafety measures are not in place. Its economy is also highly vulnerable to external pressures. The risk perception, risk management as well as risk communication skills are vitally needed while conducting any high-technology operation.  B vendors of this type of high-technology owners often choose those clients who are least prepared to deal with them.

Meanwhile, clandestine operations by pro-GM forces may surface again in India as parliamentary elections draw near. The agricultural minister Sharad Pawar has clearly sided with the GM crop lobby.  But hundreds of Indian scientists have written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, asking him to ensure that government heeds the voice of science and accepts the recommendations of the Supreme Court appointed technical expert committee. The developments in Bangladesh are an eye opener for many of them.  But  perhaps what is needed  most of all, is the formation of a platform at a regional level where   south Asian  and south-east Asian countries can come together and collectively deal with this type of threat. Sooner they realise that the  impact of GM technology goes beyond borders, the  better it is for them.

 

References:

Tribune Report (2013): “Do not release Bt brinjal: HC”, Dhaka Tribune, 30 September

Minisrtry of Environmen and Forests (2010): “Decision on Commercialisation of Bt-Brinjal”, The Hindu, 9 February

Jagran Josh (2013): “Bangladesh became the First South Asian Country to Approve Commercial Cultivation of Bt Brinjal”, Jagran Josh, 4 November

Chakraborty, Tushar (2013): “Nature’s writ & gene monopolised crops”, The Statesman, 22 July

Akhter, Farida (2010): “Bt Brinjal: India halts, Bangladesh moves ahead?”, bdnews24.com, 17 February

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