Filipino farmer leaders from Pangasinan, Isabela, Butuan, Bukidnon, and Maguindanao recently participated in a two-day study visit to Bt brinjal (eggplant) farms in Bangladesh last February 23 to 26, 2016. Discussions on biotechnology regulations in Bangladesh, research and development of Bt brinjal, and farmer experiences on planting Bt brinjal were conducted with officials from the Bangladesh government and scientists from the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), namely: AKM Quamruzzaman, Senior Scientific Officer, BARI; Muhammad Solaiman Haider, Director for Planning, Department of Environment, Bangladesh Ministry of Environment; and ASM Mahbubur Rahman Khan, Chief Scientific Officer and Head, On-Farm Research Division, BARI. The field visit to Bt brinjal planting sites and interaction with Bt brinjal farmers were held in two villages in Bogra, Bangladesh.
During the discussion with Bangladesh officials and scientists, questions asked by the Filipino farmers were on the keys to success in the commercial approval and cultivation of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh, as the first and only country to successfully deploy Bt brinjal. The farmer leaders also solicited insights and learning experiences that can help them communicate the plight of eggplant farmers in the Philippines to government, where its Supreme Court has permanently stopped the field trials of Bt eggplant, and nullified its operating regulations (Dept. of Agriculture Administrative Order No. 8) on research, field testing, commercialization, and importation of GM crops in the country.
According to GP Das, Country Coordinator for Bangladesh of the Feed the Future Biotechnology Partnership Project of Cornell University, this is the first time that farmers from another country are interacting with their officials and local farmers to share and learn from the Bangladesh experience. After it was approved for commercialization, Bt brinjal was planted in two hectares by 20 farmers in spring season and 10 hectares by 100 farmers in the winter season. Bt brinjal significantly increased the marketable yield of brinjal fruits thereby mitigating losses caused by wastage of infested and damaged fruits. In just over a year, expeditious cultivation of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh showed strong acceptance among brinjal farmers.
GP Das added that apart from the farmer-scientist and farmer-to-farmer interactions, it is also important that Filipino farmers learn how Bt brinjal was adopted by Bangladesh, what were the processes undertaken, hurdles surpassed, and how its country regulation and government supported the responsible stewardship of the technology. Strong political will of the government and public-private partnership for the technology were key to the successful approval and commercial cultivation.
Bt brinjal important in Bangladesh
“Brinjal is the most popular vegetable in Bangladesh and is consumed in rural and urban areas. It occupies 10 percent of the total land area planted to vegetables in Bangladesh,” explains Khan. Brinjal production in Bangladesh is currently at 3.45 mMT, but low production is attributed to insect infestation, the most rampant of which is the fruit and shoot borer (FSB).
He added that although there are more than 100 varieties of brinjal in Bangladesh, no natural resistance was found against the FSB. Similar to other countries, like the Philippines, to solve this problem, farmers in Bangladesh use pesticides indiscriminately. “Our farmers spray insecticide up to 84 times during a six to seven-month cropping season. This is comparable to Filipino farmers spraying their crops every day to prevent losses due to FSB. Pesticide cost is 32 percent of total cost of production. That’s why our government has to do something about the situation. Bangladesh has a large population, and our scientists acknowledge the fact that it is their responsibility to feed our people,” says Khan.
In October 2013, BARI released four varieties of Bt brinjal, which it currently produces. Initial production in 2014 was pegged at 90kg. This year, the government-run research institution is targeting 500kg, which will be awarded to 233 farmers, almost twice the number of beneficiaries as compared to the previous year. Bt brinjal can now be grown all-year-round in Bangladesh.
In 2015, average annual income of Bt brinjal farmers were estimated at Tk73,000. Adds Khan, “farmers preferred the use of Bt brinjal technology because pesticide use was reduced, followed by high crop yield, and easy marketability of the product because of its good quality and taste.”
In terms of regulation, Haider explained that “only genetically-engineered crops are regulated in Bangladesh, and all these products undergo biosafety processes. GM crops are regulated by the Ministry of Environment, while medical biotechnology is handled by the Ministry of Health.” Says GP Das, “biotechnology should be used only on crops that have a big problem. In Bangladesh, regulation is a step-by-step process. We are moving slowly because seeds are not yet available. Research, on the other hand, is currently in full swing as we aim to develop Bt equivalents of all 16 popular brinjal varieties.”
After the field visit, some of the Filipino farmer leaders gave their insights on the whole experience. Rosalie Ellasus, farmer leader and municipal councilor in San Jacinto, Pangasinan, reflects on her Bangladesh experience. She says, “even though we weren’t able to get seeds, it was fulfilling to see a real Bt brinjal fruit and be assured that the technology really works — lessens pesticide use and doesn’t harm the environment. I hope our government finally sees the light on this issue. We are losing so much because they are depriving us of this technology.” Reynaldo Cabanao, president of the Asian Farmers Regional Network Philippines (ASFARNET Phils.) stated that he joined the study visit hoping he will be able to bring back seeds to the Philippines. Says Cabanao, “I am frustrated that BARI is unable to share seeds because Bt eggplant is prohibited in the Philippines. But learning about their farmers’ experiences and how much it has benefitted them in such a short time inspires us more to push for this technology. The Philippine government and Supreme Court should hear out the sentiments of Filipino farmers.”