Latest: exclusive video interviews and footage with 5 farmers in Rangpur (filmed on my phone!):
9 May, 12.00hrs – see updates at end of post…
Once again media reports have emerged claiming that genetically modified pest-resistant Bt brinjal (eggplant) has failed in the field and that farmers in Bangladesh are regretting that they have begun to grow it. (An earlier example was dealt with here.) The stakes are admittedly high here: this is South Asia’s first GMO food crop, and has been developed in the public sector for distribution to resource-poor smallholder farmers. The powerful anti-GMO lobby knows that if Bangladeshi farmers successfully adopt this new crop, other GMO crops in the pipeline such as Golden Rice (also being developed in Bangladesh) will be advantaged and their cause of banning the technology permanently will be harmed.
The latest media report appeared in New Age, a Bangladeshi newspaper, and was titled ‘Bt brinjal farming ruins Gazipur farmers’. It is online here. The report is very specific, quoting farmer Mansur Sarkar, who is supposedly furious at the non-performance of his Bt brinjal crop. Sarkar is one of 20 farmers in 4 regions of Bangladesh who are growing the first generation of Bt brinjal. The rationale for the new variety is very simple – it is resistant to the endemic pest called fruit and shoot borer by carrying the Bt gene, and therefore requires drastically less pesticide than is conventionally applied by farmers to brinjal.
Here is a particular allegation from the New Age:
During a spot visit on Monday at four Bt brinjal fields in Gazipur, New Age found that Bt brinjal plants faced several troubles – they did not grow up and came under attack of different pests including shoot borers.
The article also alleges that Sarkar and another farmer were furious and demanding compensation for being “guinea pigs” and for loss of livelihood. International media is already interested in this story, and Twitter has come alive with retweets from anti-GM activists with the New Age article.
However, it is entirely false. I myself, along with various scientists and others from Cornell University and the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, visited the same farm a day earlier and found the crop in good health and the farmer happy. Here are the photos to prove it:
Above is the farmer Sarkar with neighbours.
Above – Sarkar with his family.
Myself in discussions with Sarkar and project participants.
Healthy Bt brinjal entirely protected against fruit and shoot borer. Sarkar confirmed that he had only sprayed once (to control sucking pests when the plants were younger and more vulnerable), whereas neighbours growing brinjal are spraying twice a week and even every day. (Conventional brinjal farmers can spray 140-180 times during the season.) Pesticide residues will therefore be much lower on the Bt brinjal crop.
Farmer Sarkar demonstrating fruit and shoot borer infestation in the control crop. This is a non-Bt brinjal which has been planted around the outside for comparative purposes and also as a pest refuge. It is likely that journalists visiting the site would not have known the difference and would have concluded that Bt brinjal has failed.
I am writing this in a traffic jam in Dhaka. I have also visited a NW region of Bangladesh, Rangpur, where five more farmers have planted Bt brinjal, and will post videos and photos from this trip within the next couple of days. In the meantime, I hope that any international media coverage will be based on the real situation and not on fictional accounts planted in the Bangladeshi press by those with a negative (and indeed potentially pro-pesticide) agenda.
It is particularly disturbing that anti-GMO activists seem now to be moving towards the ‘nuclear option’ of spreading out-and-out health scare stories about Bt brinjal in the popular media and directly to farmers and consumers. One article published a day ago in the Dhaka Tribune raises the spectre of health fears, and features quotes from a supposed ‘UK vegetable importer’ called Helena Paul – who is actually a lifelong professional anti-GMO activist. Most worrying of all, several of the farmers I visited in Rangpur had earlier been visited by an anti-GMO activist posing as a journalist who told them that if their children ate Bt brinjal they would become paralysed. This parallels the sterility/infertility myth that has been spread about GM crops elsewhere in the world, in particular in sub-Saharan Africa. I will post video testimony of these farmers telling their stories very soon.
Make no mistake: if people reject Bt brinjal then the population of Bangladesh will continue to consume brinjal that is laced with dangerous pesticides. This is why the Agriculture Minister recently asked whether the anti-GMO activists were receiving money from insecticide manufacturers. My own feeling is that the activists are more ‘useful idiots’ for the pesticide companies rather than being paid for their effort, but this bears investigation nonetheless. Watch this space.
UPDATE 9 MAY:
The antis in Bangladesh have begun a campaign against me. A ‘journalist’ by the name of ‘Gora Lorca’ (not a Bangladeshi name, possibly a pseudonym) has set up a Facebook page complaining that I have mixed up the farmers names. A second Facebook page has also just appeared, by an anti-GMO campaigner called Zobaer Al Mahmud, who has long campaigned against Bt brinjal and spread related conspiracy theories. According to this page, I am a “pro-Monsanto Bioterrorist”, a “pro-Monsanto agent” and an “agent of Monsanto” – the latter two accusations all in a single paragraph!
This second page is interesting, because it includes several more photos. One of them includes the *same farmer* – Mansur Sarkar – who is in my pictures above, and is pictured looking unhappy. According to the photo, he was visited on 5 May 2014. This is strange because it is the *same day* that I visited Sarkar, with colleagues from Cornell University and scientists from BARI (the government-run Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute – the lead agency in Bt brinjal deployment).
A second farmer is also pictured, who is captioned Mojibur Rahman. I did not personally meet this farmer, or inspect his plot. However, my colleague from Cornell University, the entomologist Professor Antony Shelton, did visit this farmer a month ago as can clearly be seen from the photograph accompanying Shelton’s blog report. Note that the farmer Rahman is even wearing the same clothes!
There are some photographs of an unidentified field also published on this Facebook page showing brinjal which is clearly affected by bacterial wilt – this appears to have been wrongly identified by activists/journalists as evidence of fruit and shoot borer pest attack. In the first blog rebuttal it was also reported that bacterial wilt had been identified – this is as the result of waterlogging of the soil, and improper farming techniques, in particular the failure to rotate, allowing bacterial pathogens to build up in the soil. Note that Bt brinjal will be just as susceptible to bacterial wilt (and other pests not controlled by Bt) as any other brinjal. There is also an image of a fruit and shoot borer. As I mentioned above, this will certainly be in one of the non-Bt control plants – non-specialists visiting the site trying to paint a negative picture cannot of course be expected to tell the difference.
As to the question of myself being an “agent of Monsanto” – my role in this is as a Visiting Fellow at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Plant Sciences. Monsanto has no role in the project, and the intellectual property of Bt brinjal is held by BARI for the government and people of Bangladesh. However, the antis see the satanic hand of Monsanto behind everything GMO-related, so expect these conspiracy theories to continue to flourish.
I will post video testimony from *all of the farmers* in Rangpur in the next couple of days. No journalists have visited them – so my upcoming report will be an exclusive!