Byline: Joan Conrow
Mohammad Abul Hossain is living proof that farmers can reap tremendous benefits from agricultural science.
Like most of the approximately 150,000 smallholder farmers in Bangladesh, Hossain grows brinjal, a crop also known as eggplant and aubergine. And like those other farmers, he used to experience tremendous losses due to the fruit and shoot borer, a destructive pest that reduces brinjal yields and cuts into farmer profits.
Hossain had tried to fight the pest with insecticides. In Bangladesh, brinjal farmers typically spray insecticides two or three times per week — a rate that can increase to twice per day as harvest nears. Insecticides can account for 40 percent of a farmers’ total production cost, while also inflicting severe impacts on human and environmental health. Worse, they’re often ineffective, leaving farmers with yields reduced by 30 to 60 percent.
So when Hossain heard about Bt brinjal, a genetically engineered eggplant variety that is resistant to the fruit and shoot borer, he wanted to learn more. Developed by the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) in cooperation with Cornell University, USAID and other partners, Bt brinjal is the first genetically engineered crop to be commercially released in Bangladesh. It contains a protein from a common soil bacterium that has been used to fight pests in organic crops around the world for more than 70 years.
Though his curiosity was piqued by the 2014 release of Bt brinjal, Hossain decided to hold back for a year and observe its performance in a relative’s field. “Realizing its potential, I contacted BARI, met the officials and collected seed from the research station free of cost,” he recalled.
Following the suggestion of BARI scientists, Hossain planted one line of conventional, non-Bt brinjal around his field as a refuge crop to help protect the Bt brinjal from the fruit and shoot borer pest. After his first abundant harvest, he was so impressed that he began sharing what he knew with other farmers in his area.
“I have sold about 8,056 kg (17,760 lbs) of Bt brinjal from my land,” Hossain recently told a group of more than 60 local farmers. “There was no [borer] infestation in my crop, and I am expecting to harvest another 400 kg (881 lbs) of brinjal from the field with the same result.” Rather than spraying insecticides on a weekly basis, Hossain applied insecticides just two or three times during the entire season to protect against other insect pests.
In six months, Hossain earned about $1,600 growing Bt brinjal on a small piece of land. By comparison, he earned just $275 growing corn in the same field. Given the increased profits and reduced pesticide use, he thinks Bt brinjal will create hope among neighboring farmers who struggle to earn a livelihood from their land.
Hossain, 55, has been farming for 15 years, raising vegetables, rice, corn and potatoes on nearly three acres of land. He also tends fruit orchards, a pond for aquaculture and cattle. With a background in business, Hossain is considered a cutting-edge farmer who pays careful attention to production methods and crop diversity. His interest in agriculture is so keen that he encouraged his son to earn an agriculture diploma course in a local institute.
Now he sees that science and technology can also help his farm thrive. “I am a good example of a successful Bt brinjal grower,” he said. “Look in my field, all my efforts are reflected in the field with this high yielding Bt brinjal production.”
Others are now following his example. The number of farmers growing Bt brinjal jumped from just 20 in 2014 to 25,520 by 2018, with more adopting the improved crop each day. Many of them have reported a six-fold increase in their incomes. It is estimated that widespread cultivation of Bt eggplant in Bangladesh will result in a benefit of more than $200 million for the nation’s smallholder farmers.