GMO eggplant crop expands in Bangladesh

By Mark Lynas

August 6, 2018

Farmers are continuing to rapidly adopt Bt eggplant (brinjal) in Bangladesh, resulting in reduced pesticide use and higher incomes, according to a new paper authored by scientists involved in developing and releasing the pioneering genetically modified crop.

Writing in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechology, the scientific team, led by Cornell University’s Professor Tony Shelton, revealed that this year 27,012 Bangladeshi farmers benefited from the pest-reducing technology.

The latest figures show a substantial increase from the 6,512 farmers who had adopted Bt brinjal during the previous 2016-17 season. Bt brinjal was first released experimentally to just 20 farmers in 2013-14, 108 farmers in 2014-15 and 250 farmers in 2015-16.

The paper confirms that pest-resistant Bt brinjal has enabled the small-scale family farmers who grow the crop to make big reductions in their use of pesticides and consequently dramatically increase their income from selling the vegetables in local markets.

A study in the 2016-17 cropping season compared 505 Bt brinjal farmers with 350 non-Bt brinjal farmers. This indicated a 61 percent saving in pesticide cost, which translated to a 650 percent (six-fold) increase in returns, from $2,151/ha for Bt brinjal as compared to just $357/ha for non-Bt brinjal.

These cost savings and increases in returns show not just a significant environmental gain due to pesticide reductions, but a huge potential improvement in livelihoods for these farmers, many of whom live in impoverished conditions.

Despite these clear benefits, anecdotal reports collected by the Alliance for Science suggest that anti-GMO activists spent more than one season touring the countryside in Bangladesh and encouraging Bt brinjal-adopting farmers to give up using the GMO crop and instead return to using more insecticide.

Bt brinjal was initially intended for three countries: Bangladesh, India and the Philippines. However, anti-GMO activists successfully blocked the deployment of Bt brinjal in both India and the Philippines, with the result that eggplant farmers in both countries continue to be dependent on toxic insecticide spraying. An economist in the Philippines recently reported that farmers there are losing as much as P33.85 billion annually due to non-commercialization of the crop.

The new paper also shows — contrary to repeated assertions by anti-GMO groups based in Dhaka — that Bt brinjal has been fully effective in protecting crops against the eggplant fruit and shoot borer (EFSB) pest. Experiments showed less than 1 percent infestation, as compared to 35-45 percent infestation for non-Bt eggplant, even with weekly spraying.

The scientists caution that Bt brinjal is not designed to counter all pests, and that control methods are still needed to tackle other insects, such as whiteflies, thrips and mites. This means insecticides may still be needed occasionally, though in much reduced quantities.

They write: “Results indicated that high quality EFSB-free brinjal could be produced without insecticide treatments but that insecticide control of ‘sucking insects’ provided even higher economic returns on the Bt lines.”

Regarding the development of the technology, the paper describes how Bt brinjal “was provided to the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) through a public private partnership between Mahyco, Cornell University, Sathguru Management Consultants, BARI and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II cooperative agreement (ABSPII).”

Although ABSPII ended in 2014, USAID still supports the project via the South Asia Eggplant Improvement Partnership, part of USAID’s Feed the Future initiative.

Discussing the provision of seeds to farmers, the authors write: “BARI has distributed seed for free to growers but BADC [Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation] charges a minimal fee. Of note is that the four Bt brinjal lines that have been released are not hybrids, so growers can save seed, although they are discouraged from doing so for agronomic reasons.” Hybrids may be offered to farmers in future, however, to further improve yields.

The scientists also emphasize the importance of proper stewardship, with farmers required to provide refuges of 5 percent non-Bt brinjal to help forestall the evolution of resistance among the target fruit and shoot borer pest. The paper also outlines other strategies that also need to be employed.

Speaking at a workshop in March 2017, Bangladesh’s agriculture minister Matia Chowdhury made clear her strong support for Bt brinjal and for biotechnology in general to improve the environment and food security in the country.

“Development of brinjal fruit and shoot insect resistant-Bt brinjal is a success story of local and foreign collaboration,” she said. “We will be guided by the science-based information, not by the non-scientific whispering of a section of people.”

She continued: “Good science will move on its own course keeping the anti-science people down. As human beings, it is our moral obligation that all people in our country should get food and not go to bed on an empty stomach. Biotechnology can play an important role in this effort.”