Introduction of genetically modified crop is a highly risky venture, particularly in a country like Bangladesh that is rich in biodiversity and bio-geographically known as the origin of diversity spot. Despite the known risks, Bangladesh has been targeted for experiment and field trials of GM transgenic crops such as Bt brinjal. This has been done despite the resistance from the farmers, scientists and environmental activists. Apart from the risk of biological pollution and health hazards, the debate over the scientific claims and agronomic value of Bt brinjal has not been settled. Promoter’s claim about the effectivity of this highly risk-prone technology is not based on evidence. The latest claim that farmers are adopting Bt brinjal in large numbers has also been proved untrue. These are, however, imposed on them through the Department of Agricultural Extension.
Bangladesh has become a test case to counter the global resistance against GMOs. It is a country, which is introducing genetically modified food crops one after the other without any difficulty, no matter what the consequences are. In 2013, the government approved field cultivation of transgenic plant Bt brinjal. Bt brinjal is a big show of Monsanto-Mahyco through USAID and Bangladesh Agriculture Research Institute. And, now enters the Syngenta with another failed venture of Golden rice, the so-called Vit — an enriched transgenic rice as a ‘solution’ to the problem of night blindness in the country.
On January 30, 2019, Dr Abdur Razzak, the new agriculture minister has told journalists after a meeting with the International Rice Research Institute that ‘Golden rice, a new variety of rice enriched with Vitamin A will be available soon in Bangladesh’. He said, ‘A committee of the environment ministry will give clearance to the rice for production. We will be able to start cultivation in Bangladesh within two to three months upon getting the clearance.’ He further justified his declaration by saying ‘Golden rice is more important than other varieties as it will help fight Vitamin A deficiency. The rice variety has already got clearance in USA, Canada and Australia.’
Rice producing countries of Asia, such as the Philippines, where International Rice Research Institute is situated could not yet introduce the field cultivation of this rice because of concerns from the environmental groups, while non-rice producing countries such as USA, Canada and Australia have given the clearance. It is indeed ironic. Bangladesh being a rice producing country with huge population of rice-eaters, known as ‘Bheto Bangalee’ has no relevance to the clearance in the non–rice producing developed countries.
‘Golden’ rice is a transgenic or genetically engineered rice variety that has been developed by Syngenta, a biotech industry, to produce pro-vitamin A (beta-carotene). The proponents have promoted GE ‘Golden’ rice as a high-tech, quick-fix solution to vitamin A deficiency — a deficiency prevalent in developing countries that may lead to night blindness. The research was carried out in International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.
In Bangladesh, the first Golden rice was evolved by incorporating beta-carotene gene of daffodil flower into BRRI Dhan 29, a HYV Rice, commonly grown by farmers in the Boro season. However, the effort for introduction of Golden Rice 1 (GR-1) carried out for over last 10 years, was not very successful. Later, the second genetically engineered Golden rice was evolved by incorporation of beta-carotenoid from maize into BRRI Dhan 29, keeping its golden colour. No impartial assessment of its success or failure was conducted. However, Bangladesh continued to be selected as a laboratory for the trial, the farmers and the people to become the guinea-pigs. The innovators of the Golden rice were not capable enough to give any evidence in favour of any positive gain of gene incorporation from maize to rice.
Dr Tusher Chakraborty, an Indian scientist noted that the experiments with the earlier ‘GR-1’ strains came out with unrealistic outcomes as one was supposed to take about 1.5kg rice daily to meet the vitamin A requirement. While the ‘GR-2’ strain of the transgenic rice that the BRRI has developed based on the popular high-yielding variety BRRI Dhan 29 is supposed to have much higher vitamin A concentration that implies higher risks related to retinoic acid (Dhaka Tribune, October 10, 2015).
In 2011, the grant of over $10 million to IRRI to fund, develop and evaluate Golden rice varieties for Bangladesh and the Philippines was given by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They claim that ‘the Golden rice inventors and subsequent technology developer Syngenta allowed a royalty-free access to the patents, the new rice would be of the same price as other rice varieties once released for commercial farming in Bangladesh, and farmers would be able to share and replant the seeds as they wish’ (The Daily Star, October 28, 2016)
This is a contentious issue and one does not know how long the royalty-free status would be maintained by Syngenta once it is cultivated by large number of farmers. Genetically modified/engineered seeds are patented and they have a higher price than those of the normal market seeds. So making it royalty-free for a certain period or for certain group of people does not make its status ‘free’ for the farmers. In the case Monsanto-patented Bt brinjal, farmers have been given free seeds along with inputs of fertilizers, some pesticides, technical support and cash money. But now it is known that the Bt brinjal seeds price is Tk. 5000 per kilogram, as opposed to Tk. 700 per kg for brinjal seeds developed by Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation. That is, GM Brinjal seeds are seven times higher in price than normal brinjal seeds. As the recently released annual report of USDA Foreign Agricultural Service’s Bangladesh Agricultural Biotechnology suggests, ‘a lack of purchasing power in the farming sector dominated by small and marginal people may restrict the wider use of genetically modified seeds in Bangladesh’ (The Daily Star, December 20, 2018). Since the release, the BARI has been producing and distributing Bt brinjal seeds among farmers. The highest amount of seeds of GE eggplant, 1,827 kilograms was produced in fiscal 2016-17. But according to the USDA report, production of seeds of Bt brinjal by BADC slumped to 612 kg in 2017-18, keeping 1,400 kg of seeds in stock.
According to the minister for Agriculture, a committee of the environment ministry will give clearance to the Golden rice for production. In 2013, in the midst of concerns, court cases and protests by national and international scientists and environmental groups, the government of Bangladesh took very quick steps to go through the approval process of first genetically modified food crop Bt brinjal. The National Committee on Biosafety under the ministry of environment passed the approval on October 30, 2013 with seven conditions. These included field biosafety management planning, safety measures such as isolation distance, border-row management, techniques for protection of local and indigenous varieties, monitoring of biosafety measures, action and implementation of health and environmental risks and effective measures for labelling for marketing as per biosafety rules. Unfortunately, except isolation distance and border-row management in the initial rounds of field cultivation, the conditions of the approval by the Committee in the ministry of environment were not met, nor there was any monitoring by the environment ministry at the field level. Farmers have not seen any official from the environment department in their fields.
Keeping in mind the issue of biosafety, the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute carried out the field trial on the campus of Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute in Gazipur to keep Golden rice segregated from other rice varieties grown in BRRI fields. Then how the farmers are going to segregate the golden rice in the field cultivation?
According to the USDA report about 6 per cent of 80,000 acres of farmland set aside for growing brinjal are cultivated with Bt brinjal. If these have produced brinjals, then these must have been marketed too. But were they ever labelled as per approval condition? The answer is a big no. The farmers were not even asked to do so. So there has been no labelling on the Bt brinjals cultivated in farmers’ field. The consumers had no indication that they were buying genetically modified vegetable along with other brinjals. Therefore, there is no way to follow up to see if there are any health risks caused by consumption of the GM food crop.
Golden rice as genetically modified rice must also go through the process of regulatory mechanism guided by the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety which Bangladesh has ratified. Bangladesh must follow The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity, a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which entered into force in 2003. The National Bio-safety Framework in Bangladesh has been developed in 2006. There is Biosafety Rules, 2012 that was also not very satisfactory to protect our diversity and the environment.
Bangladesh has thousands of indigenous varieties. The introduction of genetically modified rice may cause serious threat to genetic base of rice. There is a lack of scientific expertise and legal strength to face such threats. The security of the country and food sovereignty may be threatened seriously if the agricultural production system becomes dependent on the multinational companies.
Syngenta and IRRI are continuing to pursue introduction of GE Rice without proving that Golden rice is indeed going to solve problems and will not cause biological contamination to our local varieties. In many Asian countries it has been rejected by farmers’ organisations on these grounds. In terms of nutrition, it is also termed as an ‘inappropriate and ineffective solution’. There are ample sources of Vitamin A in common fruits and vegetables, which are plentiful and are available in our country. These are available from both cultivated and uncultivated sources. The leafy vegetables include katonotey, sajnapata, kolmi, puisak and data. The vegetables include sweet gourd, field bean, okra, etc. The ripe fruits like papaya, melon, jackfruit, mango, banana and pine apple are rich in vitamin A. Sufficient vitamin A is also available from rice polished by wooden husking pedal.
Solving the problem of night-blindness or Vitamin A deficiency is not a technological issue, it is more related to poverty and balanced food intake. The company patented Golden rice or the so-called Vitamin A rice, is not at all going to solve the problem, rather it will make the country more vulnerable by making them dependent on multinational companies.
The government of Bangladesh should refrain from introducing transgenic that can seriously threaten our ecology and biodiversity generally and farming system in particular. Opening up the agricultural sector to the manipulation of multinational companies serves the strategic interest of the intense global technological competition that could be disastrous for Bangladesh. Bangladesh must develop its own technology suitable for its environment, ecology, biodiversity and nutritional needs of its people.
Farida Akhter is the executive director of UBINIG and organiser of Nayakrishi Andolon.