Study confirms that GMO eggplant cuts pesticide use in Bangladesh

By Joan Conrow

March 7, 2019

A new study has confirmed that genetically modified brinjal (eggplant) successfully resists the destructive fruit and shoot borer pest, reducing the need to use pesticides on one of Bangladesh’s most popular vegetables.

The fruit and shoot borer (FSB) was found on just 10.6 percent of the pest-resistant Bt brinjal crops, compared to a 90 percent infestation rate on non-GM brinjal, according to research conducted jointly by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Bangladesh’s Agriculture Ministry.

“Let me clarify, we don’t find anything wrong with Bt brinjal,” said Agriculture Minister Dr. Muhammad Abdur Razzaque at a March 6 DHAKA workshop where the results were announced. He reaffirmed the nation’s commitment to using the tools of biotechnology to develop crops that can feed the nation’s growing population and improve food security and nutrition. The Minister also emphasized that the government has ensured that the improved GM varieties do not harm human or environmental health.

Though Bt brinjal was engineered specifically to resist the FSB, it also helps to reduce infestations of other harmful insect pests, the study found. Populations of  leaf-eating beetles, mites and mealy or leaf wing bugs were lower in Bt brinjal than the non-GM varieties.

As a result, non-GM brinjal farmers sprayed significantly more times during a growing cycle to control pests, compared to Bt brinjal farmers, according to another study conducted by IFPRI and the ministry. Historically, brinjal farmers have sprayed as many as 84 times in a growing season to protect their crops.

In addition to the health and environmental benefits associated with lower pesticide use, Bt brinjal farmers also are able to save the expense of buying and applying chemicals and can earn a higher price for the popular vegetable. Consequently, Bt brinjal farmers have experienced a substantial increase in revenue, according to Akhter Ahmed, the IFPRI representative in Bangladesh.

The 2017-18 IFPRI study, which is awaiting publication in a peer-reviewed journal, involved more than 1,200 farmers in the Rangpur and Rajshahi divisions.

Other researchers who conducted a study in 2016-17 reported a 0-2 percent infestation of FSB in Bt brinjal varieties, compared to a 36-45 percent infestation in non-GM varieties.They also found that Bt brinjal had no impact on non-target beneficial insects, such as lady beetles and spiders. Other studies are currently under way to identify ways of controlling some of the secondary pests, such as mites and white fly, so that brinjal farmers can further improve their gross returns and minimize insecticide use.

Bt brinjal has performed well in the Bangladeshi market due to its high quality and the lower levels of pesticide used in cultivation. Smallholder farmers have rapidly adopted the crop, from just 20 in 2014 to more than 27,000 across all districts of Bangladesh.

However, the crop still has its critics, prompting Agriculture Secretary Md. Nasiruzzaman to note that many people also opposed hybrid crops when they were first introduced. “We always found some rebels against newer technologies,” he said.

Bt brinjal is Bangladesh’s first GM crop and the first publicly developed GM food crop in South Asia. Bangladesh approved the crop in 2013, following nine years of research, and it was introduced to farmers in 2014. Bt brinjal was developed through the  Feed the Future South Asia Eggplant Improvement Partnership, a collaboration between the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), the University of the Philippines at Los Banos, Cornell University, the Cornell Alliance for Science and the US Agency for International Development. The technology was transferred to BARI for royalty-free distribution to farmers, who can freely save and share the seeds.