Myths and Truths of Bt brinjal

Truth: It is true that professional anti-GMO activists and European-based NGOs have so far succeeded in thwarting the introduction of Bt brinjal in both countries. In the Philippines, Greenpeace activists even attacked and destroyed a Bt brinjal trial crop, and later succeeded in obtaining a court judgment against it, despite the provision of scientifically flawed evidence by the activists making the petition. Similarly in India, a tortuous legal situation resulted in a moratorium on Bt brinjal imposed two years ago by then environment minister Jairam Ramesh. This decision was taken against the scientific evidence of the government’s own advisors, again at the behest of activist NGOs opposed to the use of agricultural technology to benefit farmers. None of these are good reasons for Bangladesh to ignore the overwhelming international scientific consensus on the safety and usefulness of Bt crops and prohibit Bt brinjal.

Truth: This myth originates from accusations about Bt cotton, which has been extensively adopted by Indian farmers because of its success in resisting pest infestation and thereby delivering better harvests. The truth about the situation in India is that Bt technology has been hugely positive — even where the seed has cost more, farmers more than make up the difference in reduced pesticide costs and better yields. For Bt brinjal in Bangladesh, it is not anticipated that the seed will cost more than conventional seeds. In any case, farmers will be free to save the seeds if they wish. They too should see their economic situation improve because they can reduce expenditure on high-priced toxic insecticides that are currently an unavoidable input for commercial brinjal growers. It is also anticipated that farmers will benefit from better yields due to improved pest control from the Bt brinjal crop. Current estimates are that half of all brinjal production is wasted due to pest infestation that makes the fruit unmarketable. Bt technology is far more effective than sprays in controlling the insect pests because the Bt toxin is expressed inside the plant, where the larvae of the insects are otherwise invulnerable to pesticides applied externally. Overall, it is anticipated that pesticide use can be reduced by 70-90% and farmers’ incomes will rise by an average of 100% due to higher brinjal yields and lower costs. This adds up to a projected net benefit to Bangladesh brinjal farmers of 144,000 Taka (USD 1,800) per hectare.

Truth: The association of GMOs with chemical monoculture derives from a misunderstanding about herbicide-tolerant crops widely used in North and South America. Bt brinjal is genetically engineered to avoid the use of insecticides, not to encourage it. It is not ‘resistant to pesticides’, as is sometimes alleged. Because Bt brinjal contains a Bt protein it is able to resist pest infestation with minimal or no application of toxic insecticides. For those consumers who select organic food to avoid toxic chemicals, Bt brinjal would be a good choice.

Truth: No farmer will ever be sued for saving and replanting Bt brinjal seeds. Bt brinjal has been developed in the public sector and will be distributed non-commercially. There are no technology fees or royalties payable on Bt brinjal by any farmer in Bangladesh because the technology to develop it has been donated free of charge. Farmers will not just be permitted, but will be encouraged, to save their seeds.

Truth: The myth that GMO crops utilize so-called ‘terminator technology’ is unfortunately still promoted by anti-GMO activists, despite being entirely untrue. Although proposed nearly 20 years ago, so-called ‘terminator’ seeds have never been developed and do not currently exist. Seeds from Bt brinjal open-pollinated varieties will be free for farmers to save and replant as they wish. There is also often confusion between hybrid crops and GMOs. Hybrids do not breed true, and farmers do indeed have to purchase new hybrid seeds each season. They do so because hybrids (which are crosses between two different but related parent varieties) typically produce stronger plants and greater yields. Genetically improved crops, on the other hand, will reproduce their genetic characteristics in future generations — unless they are also hybrids.

Truth: Promoters of this myth typically confuse ‘biodiversity’ in its true natural sense of wild animals and plants with the agricultural diversity of cultivated crops. For the latter, Bt and conventional brinjal can be grown by farmers according to preference without one eliminating the other. The project partners involved in Bt brinjal all agree that the protection of agricultural genetic diversity is important. Programmes exist to ensure that traditional land race varieties of brinjal are not lost even though farmers may be unwilling to continue using them because of lower yields. As regards natural biodiversity, scientists have shown that the use of Bt in other crops like cotton increases biodiversity rather than reduces it. This is because farmers need to use far less insecticide to protect the crop against pest infestation. Because farmers are not spraying toxic chemicals, this protects beneficial insects and other animals higher up the food chain. It also protects biodiversity by reducing pesticide runoff into waterways and soils. Extensive tests conducted in multiple locations by the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute between 2010 and 2013 showed no negative impacts on non-target insects or soil microflora caused by Bt brinjal.

Truth: The pesticide in Bt brinjal is only toxic if you happen to be a fruit and shoot borer caterpillar. Humans, and indeed all other animals, are not affected by the Bt protein involved, which is known to scientists as cry1Ac. There are many examples of plant-derived substances that are toxic to insects but not to humans — caffeine is another. Cry proteins have been extensively tested by scientists for two decades, and are used in millions of tonnes of food and feed crops in North and South America, Europe and Asia that are consumed by farm animals and people. Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, naturally originates from a soil bacterium that is ubiquitous around the world. It has been used for as long as 60 years as an external pesticide, and is heavily relied upon by organic farmers for this purpose. Moreover, Bt brinjal will actually reduce peoples’ exposure to pesticides by reducing the use of insecticides, many of which are genuinely toxic and indeed carcinogenic. What anti-GMO activists never admit is that brinjal is conventionally sprayed with pesticides every 2-3 days to protect against fruit and shoot borer infestation, adding up to as much as 80 sprays in the growing season. So Bt brinjal will be safer for consumers than the conventional alternative, which is why it was developed — in order to reduce the environmental and health damage from toxic pesticides.

Truth: Bt brinjal was developed in the public sector by the government-operated Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, for non-commercial purposes. It is not owned by any corporate entity. Seeds will be distributed to farmers in a non-commercial approach where small and medium-enterprise farmers will access seed through the state university distribution system. International technical assistance has come from experts at Cornell University in the United States, with funding from USAID. Anti-GMO activists contend that Bt brinjal is somehow a trojan horse for Monsanto, but in reality Monsanto has nothing to do with the project — its only early involvement was freely donating the genetic constructs for Bt expression to the project partners in India. Monsanto has no ownership rights over Bt brinjal.

Truth: Bt brinjal varieties are not new varieties— they are the same as the old varieties that farmers prefer, except that they have genes that mean it can resist insect pest attack. Brinjal is very largely self-pollinated, which means that pollen rarely leaves the plant, and is only transported by visiting insects for a short distance (a maximum of 30 metres) from the plant. This is why brinjal farmers commonly grow different varieties quite close to each other and yet they still breed true in the next generation of seeds. Tests have shown that Bt brinjal ‘outcrossing’ to other varieties is no more common than for their non-Bt counterparts. Therefore, non-Bt brinjal seeds will continue to be available as before to farmers who prefer them. There is no danger of Bt brinjal somehow ‘invading’ farmers’ land – brinjal is a fragile crop that requires intensive human cultivation and maintenance, the precise opposite of an invasive species. There is some debate about the extent to which brinjal has its ‘centre of origin’ in South Asia. The Solanum species to which brinjal belongs (which also includes potato and tomato, as well as the poisonous wild plant deadly nightshade) likely originated in South America. Some wild relatives of brinjal do exist in South Asia, but outcrossing and cross-pollination to them is no more likely from Bt brinjal than from conventional brinjal. Moreover, because Bt genes confer no selective advantage in non-cultivated species (which are not attacked by the same pests) they confer no selective advantage and therefore will not persist in the wild.

Truth: While it is true that Bt brinjal exported to other countries would need regulatory approval in those countries as a genetically-modified product, brinjal exports have never been recorded from Bangladesh either to Europe or to the South Asian region. Therefore, Bt brinjal cultivated in Bangladesh can be expected to be consumed in the country, where it has received government approval after passing stringent health, safety and environmental scientific assessments. In addition, there is no justification for genetic modification in brinjal to affect exports (even organic exports) of other vegetables – studies have shown that there is no realistic prospect of gene flow from brinjal to unrelated plant species, and no instances of hybridization with wild species and brinjal have ever been reported. Brinjal does not cross-pollinate easily, as can be seen from the fact that hundreds of different landraces/varieties of brinjal have continued to persist over many years in genetically ‘pure’ form without hybridization. Bt brinjal can thus be managed by farmers and seed producers to address any concern about gene flow to other brinjal varieties, and should not have any effect on existing export markets of fruits and vegetables from Bangladesh.