Back when my parents were still doing fruits and vegetables for our farm market, they tried their hand at growing eggplant. Unfortunately, they weren’t very big sellers and no one in our family really enjoyed eating them.
But in Bangladesh, eggplants – or brinjal, as they’re called – are a really big deal.
Eggplant is grown on about 50,000 hectares in Bangladesh. In terms of production, it is the third most important crop in the country and brings in a large portion of farmers’ income. Consumers like it because it is a great source of anti-oxidants, vitamins, and fiber. It even comes in different shapes and colors over there.
Here’s the catch though – eggplant are high susceptible to this insect called the Eggplant Fruit and Shoot Borer, or FBS for short. It’s so bad there that 51-73% of the annual Bangladeshi eggplant crop is wiped out each year due to the insect. Until now, the only option available to farmers to save their crop was to apply a whole lot of pesticides. Some farmers were spraying their crops every single day in an attempt to thwart the FBS. Now, this isn’t the United States where we have the EPA regulating how often we can spray crops with various pesticides. Quite frankly, the practice of dealing with the FBS in Bangladesh by simply using so much insecticide just isn’t good for the environment, the farmers, or the consumers.
Thankfully, there is a solution to to the problem – a biotech solution!
On October 30, 2013, after years of trials and testing, the government finally approved four FBS-resistant eggplant varieties. This was the very first GMO crop approved in Bangladesh. Scientists managed to insert the Bt protein into the eggplants, which made them all but resistant to the FBS, thus drastically reducing the amount of pesticides that were necessary to protect the crop. In fact, farmers producing the genetically modified version of eggplant only had to spray the crop twice in one year! You can imagine the saving and benefits when you go from spraying nearly every day to then only spraying twice a year. As a bonus, it also increased yields by 30%.
Can you guess what happened next?
As Mark Lynas explained in his post, it was important that the first commercial trials of Bangladesh eggplants went well. The whole of biotech in Bangladesh was relying on it. If the plant wasn’t resistant to the FBS, if yields weren’t higher, and if insecticide use didn’t decrease, then not only would the GMO eggplant fail, but other GMO crops would have a much harder time gaining any traction in the country.
Anti-GMO activists understood this.
Their first tactic was to visit the farms where the GMO eggplant was growing and then reported to various media sources that the Bt resistance didn’t work. They claimed the farmers were upset and felt like they had been duped by scientists that developed the crop. (You can read that story here.) But that wasn’t the case at all. As Lynas explained after actually visiting the farms, the Bt resistance was working and the farmers were thrilled with the results! Another scientist, Tony Shelton of Cornell University, visited the same farm from the article and confirmed that the farmer was quite happy with the successful Bt eggplant crop.
Next, the anti-GMO activists started visiting the farmers and claiming that the genetically engineered eggplant were dangerous. The activists told the farmers not to feed the crop to their children, because it would make them sterile and sick. Of course, they also started putting these claims in print (you can read one version here). The allegations, obviously, were hogwash and simply a means of scaring the Bangladeshi farmers. Activists also reportedly went to the markets where the crop was being sold and tried to scare consumers into not buying them.
The lesson out of Bangladesh can easily be applied to our own situation. We have been successfully cultivating genetically engineered crops now for decades without a single problem. But now anti-GMO activists have decided to take a stand and attempt to end the use of this technology, even in our own countries. As you can see from how the issue was handled in Bangladesh, the activists are well organized and know exactly what to do. They know how to control and manipulate the media to create a story line that fits their stance.
We certainly see that today in right here in our country when we look at the labeling or cultivation ban campaigns. For example, it isn’t anti-GMO activists that want labeling, it’s new moms that just want to protect their babies.
Anti-GMO activists are not just a bunch of hippy environmentalists that can easily be shrugged off. They are an organized and well funded group that are supported, funded, and encouraged by organizations around the world.
Try to remember that next time a “Right to Know” labeling campaign tells you they’re just a bunch of concerned moms and dads trying to protect their children or small farmers trying to fight off oppressive seed companies. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
So, how did the first year of Bt eggplant go? There was mixed results, but many of the problems were caused by other factors:
The Guardian has visited or spoken to all but one of the 20 farmers growing the Bt brinjal crop and established that it has so far had mixed results. While it appears to have successfully repelled the fruit and shoot borer pest as expected, some of the fields have succumbed to other ailments including bacterial wilt and drought. Of the 19 farmers, nine said they had had problems with the crop, with a failure rate of four out of five farms in Gazipur, the region closest to Dhaka.
(Source: The Guardian.)
Sources: ISAAA, Mark Lynas, The Guardian, Tony Shelton