By: Abu Bakar Siddique

The government has finally acknowledged that before releasing four varieties of genetically modified Bt brinjal – patented by US seed giant Monsanto – at the farmers’ level, it did not conduct any laboratory test by itself regarding the possible negative impacts on human health. 

“We could not carry out any test regarding human health hazards of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh due to the absence of necessary laboratories,” Dr Rafiqul Islam Mondol, director general of the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), told reporters yesterday.

He, however, claims Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company (Mahyco), in which Monsanto has 26% stake, assured the government that the GM varieties would not pose any hazard to public health and the ecosystem.

His statement comes only a day after BARI in a circular published in dailies claimed that they had released the varieties after being several local and international laboratories confirmed that there were no health and environmental hazards.

The circular also said BARI had conducted nutrition tests at a Dhaka University laboratory.

On October 30 last year, BARI released the four GM varieties without giving any satisfactory explanation on the issues related to environmental and health hazards – raised by campaigners. The move was even challenged in court.

In the face of concerns, the government in late December tasked the BCSIR, better known as science laboratory, to analyse whether the GM varieties had any negative health impact. The report is yet to be prepared.

Mahyco’s brinjal varieties, developed with the financial support of USAID, were banned in India in 2010 after it was exposed that there were harmful effects.

In addition to India and Bangladesh, the same group earlier developed GM brinjal varieties in the Philippines. But the move was stalled by a court order, considering the health hazards.

BARI claims that the GM varieties were popular in countries like US and Canada since they significantly cut the use of pesticides.

Brinjal is one of the major vegetables produced in countries like Bangladesh in South Asia. Bangladesh also exports the vegetable.

According to BARI, it is developed by Bt Uttara, Bt Kajla, Bt Noyontara and Bt ISD 006 from local varieties by inserting Monsanto’s Bt gene into them after a seven-year experiment which started in 2006, with the technical support of Mahyco.

In February this year, BARI distributed Bt brinjal saplings among 20 farmers in four different regions – Gazipur, Jamalpur, Rangpur and Ishwardi – to be cultivated in one bigha land each for the first time in the country.

However, most of them yeilded poor results.

The BARI chief last month told the Dhaka Tribune that the government had plans to demonstrate Bt brinjal at filed level extensively, this time among 100 farmers, in the upcoming season to make the product popular among farmers.

Yesterday’s press conference, held at the city’s Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (BARC) conference room, was also attended by nine out of the 20 farmers. They shared their feelings on the problems they had faced while cultivating the Bt brinjal varieties.

All the framers admitted that the government had provided them saplings and Tk8,000 each for cultivating the Bt brinjals.

The farmers also admitted that they faced huge financial loses due to the poor production output as most of the saplings died at different stages of cultivation.

“I had to count huge financial loss by cultivating Bt Brinjal as I could produce brinjals worth Tk5,000 by spending Tk8,000 and all of my labour,” said Monsur Rahman Sarker, a farmer from Kaliganj, Gazipur.

He said earlier he used to produce brinjals worth Tk1,00,000 on one bigha land.

However, as per the circular, the only one or two farmers failed to be successful as they did not follow the guidelines properly.

The BARI chief said the problems was that the saplings where distributed late in the season. He said this year they would distribute the varieties in October-November which is the appropriate season for brinjal cultivation.

On the issue of labelling the GM brinjals before marketing them, Dr Rafiqul told the Dhaka Tribune that it would not be possible to maintain labelling while selling the brinjals. It would be ridiculous.

According to a condition imposed by the National Committee on Biosafety, no GM crop can be sold without labels – a precondition imposed by them. The Bt brinjals produced by the 20 farmers were sold at local markets allegedly without any label.

Originally Published: Dhaka Tribute