Bangladeshi Bt brinjal farmer speaks out in GMO controversy

by Md. Arif Hossain

July 12, 2016

Eggplant farmer, Mohammad Hafizur Rahman

The Bangladeshi farmer at the center of a controversy on GMOs has spoken out to clarify his recent experience of growing Bt brinjal, the pest-resistant eggplant which is under the international media spotlight as the world’s first genetically-modified food crop being grown in a developing country.

Mohammad Hafizur Rahman, a farmer resident in Tangail district north of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, gave an gave an on-camera interview to the BBC’s Panorama programme in May 2015. In the interview he related that the new Bt brinjal crop was successfully controlling the fruit and shoot borer, a serious caterpillar pest found throughout Asia against which farmers previously had to spray toxic pesticides sometimes as much as twice a week.

Rahman told the BBC that after adopting Bt brinjal he had been able to dramatically reduce his pesticide use, and was both saving money and seeing improved health outcomes as a result. The same farmer was also featured in a New York Times article highlighting the same issues of pesticide use reductions and improved yield and livelihood.

However, after the BBC documentary was aired, anti-GMO campaigners immediately claimed that both the BBC report and the New York Times article were fabrications, and Rahman’s crop had in fact failed. These claims were buttressed by reports from a United News of Bangladesh (UNB) journalist who said he had visited Rahman’s Bt brinjal fields and found “a significant number of plants dead”.

The same UNB reporter had previously published a story claiming that numerous Bt brinjal farmers throughout the country had also suffered failed crops. This report was however challenged by the director-general of the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, Dr. Md. Rafiqul Islam Mondal, who told media that “the performance of Bt brinjal was better than non-Bt in all districts”.

These competing narratives have led to confusion internationally about the reality of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh. In order to definitively establish the truth at least about Rahman’s personal experience of growing Bt brinjal, Alliance for Science staffers visited him a second time in April 2016. The interview was filmed and can be viewed in full below (with English language translation in captions).

Rahman was unambiguous about the success of his Bt brinjal crop, and rejected claims of failure. “In the last 10 years, the amount of yield I received last year, I never received such yield all my life and neither did my neighbors, he said. That is why my neighbors are inspired and me, too.”

Rahman also revealed that the UNB reporter had shared anti-GMO materials with him in an attempt to persuade him to become critical of the technology, a serious breach of journalistic ethics.

He also denied having told the UNB reporter that he was dissatisfied with the performance of his Bt brinjal crop. “I did not say this. When the plant comes to the end of its life, it dies. My Bt brinjal plants died when they were finished fruiting. Everything comes to an end, doesn t it? Will the brinjal plants stay throughout the year? That s not possible.”

Rahman was insistent that the UNB reporter had simply not understood that his crop had already been repeatedly harvested and had reached the end of its season. “When he [the UNB reporter] visited me, those plants had started to die. The plants had no brinjals on them, I had already started to harvest Dhundul (Sponge Gourd) in that field. So, I told him my harvesting of brinjal is finished already.”

The farmer also recounted being visited by anti-GMO activists from “several offices, to tell me adverse things about Bt brinjal. They gave me a book and told me that, ‘Look brother, Bt brinjal has various problems’. They also told me not to eat this brinjal. They said if insects don t eat this, it must not be a good thing for humans to eat. With my practical mind to counter them, I asked them that people take medicines for worms, the worms die, why don t people die? They were not able to answer my question.”

This episode underscores the importance of amplifying farmers voices and placing them at the forefront of the debate about food and agriculture in developing countries. This is the fundamental motivation behind the Alliance for Science mission.

As the Alliance for Science staffers discovered, the best way to do this is by letting farmers like Rahman speak for themselves, so they can share their perspectives with a global audience without fear of distortion and false reporting.

To view the full commentary by Hafizur Rahman, watch the Alliance s 2015 and 2016 full uncut video interviews below with him in the brinjal fields of Bangladesh.