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Shooting the messenger

Jonathan Matthews, GMWatch

A row has exploded over an article published in Bangladesh. The article, and the journalist who wrote it, have come under severe attack with claims being made that the article is some kind of fabrication that may even have been planted in the newspaper. But the paper that published it is standing by its story.

In the article published on April 7th in Bangladesh’s Financial Express, the paper's correspondent reported that the genetically engineered Bt brinjals being grown by about 20 farmers in four districts in Bangladesh were coming under pest attack. The article quoted one of the Bt brinjal farmers, Haidul Islam, as expressing his disappointment. It reported another local farmer, Mojibur Rahman, as having a similarly frustrating experience.

Within 24 hours of its publication an anonymous response titled Anti-GMO activists in Bangladesh tell lies to farmers and the media was posted on a blog connected to Cornell University and others involved in promoting the Bt brinjal project. The anonymous response alleged that far from suffering from pests, Haidul Islam’s Bt brinjal field was “healthy and infestation-free”. It went on to make a series of very damaging allegations:

“It is not clear either whether the ‘journalist’ Yasir Wardad bylined on the Financial Express piece ever visited the location, or whether the whole article in its entirety was simply planted by anti-GMO activists. However it does seem clear that Haidul Islam’s quotes were fabricated, and that the failure of his Bt brinjal crop was also invented by anti-GMO activists aiming to demonize the technology.”

The anonymous blog posting even alleged that the story began when two young men wearing “black cloth masks on their faces” visited Haidul Islam’s farm. The blog said the masked men, “were likely anti-GMO activists” who “tried to coerce Haidul Islam into saying that his crop had failed. Whether the intent was bribery or threatening physical coercion is not clear, but either way Haidul Islam refused to make the statement demanded of him as he felt there was nothing wrong with his crop.”

The next day a further post appeared on the same blog authored by Tony Shelton, a Cornell professor of entomology involved in the Bt brinjal project, and a long-time GMO defender. Shelton reported how: “Mr. Islam and his associate proudly showed me his field of Bt brinjal. It was free of pest damage, and they were very pleased with the crop.”

But despite these claims that its article is a total fiction, the Financial Express is standing by its story. In a just published response it makes clear that, “The FE correspondent prepared the report based on a recent field-level visit to Shaitail village in Gazipur district. During the visit, the reporter concerned talked to some of the local farmers including Haidul Islam at his Bt Brinjal field. The conversations with the concerned farmers were also recorded and the voices of Mujibur Rahman and Haidul Islam are available with this correspondent.” 

A dead and unhealthy Bt Brinjal plant in the field of farmer Haidul IslamWe have also received the following article which includes photos taken during the reporter’s visit. These pictures appear to contradict the claims that all the Bt brinjal plants are “healthy” and “free of pest damage.” 

Another article that argues that the Bt brinjal farmers are experiencing a far from trouble-free existence has just been published by Farida Akhter, who is part of the coalition of farmers and environmentalists concerned about the introduction of Bt brinjal.

Of course, those of us not on the ground in Bangladesh cannot say with any certainty exactly what is going on there. But it seems clear that there are issues which require further (and more neutral) investigation. It also seems clear that attempts to pillory the Financial Express and rebut its reporting out of hand are, at the very least, misguided. Unfortunately, they fit a pattern of attacks on journalists who report concerns about GM crops - a pattern of bullying that parallels the aggressive attacks, often by industry gunslingers, on scientists who raise similar concerns. 

Misleading information on Bt brinjal pest attack in Bangladeshi fields

Zobaer Al Mahmud,  B. Pharm. (DU), M.Pharm. (DU)

Lecturer, Dept. of Clinical Pharmacy and Pharmacology, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh

On 7 April the Financial Express in Bangladesh published a news article entitled ‘Pest-resistant Bt Brinjal comes under pest attack’, claiming that farmers who are now cultivating insect-resistant genetically-modified brinjal (eggplant) were being forced to spray more pesticides than usual because of severe pest attack.

But pro-GMO agents, most of whom are pro-corporate, are spreading serious and objectionable lies about the journalists, even claiming that the entire article is an outright lie. The allegations appear to be totally based on the statement of BARI, which signed an agreement with corporate giant Monsanto-Mahyco to cultivate the controversial Bt brinjal in Bangladesh. 

A blog posting titled “Anti-GMO activists in Bangladesh tell lies to farmers and the media”. accused the journalist of the Financial Express of producing fabricated news which is totally wrong and unexpected.  The blog claimed:

“Visiting his brinjal field on Tuesday, the FE correspondent found 25-30 per cent of the plants dead and the rest were struggling for survival.” The Financial Express journalist, Yasir Wardad, then quoted Haidul Islam as saying: “Agriculture officials told me that I am one of the 20 fortunate farmers who got Bt seeds. It will reduce cost for pesticide. But the reality is pests have attacked my plants severely. Last year I grew local varieties and made profit. This year Allah knows what will happen to me.”
Hearing the allegations by the Financial Express, BARI’s director of research Khaled Sultan and other project officials immediately travelled to visit the farmer whose Bt brinjal plants were alleged to be dying. What they found is very different from the allegations put out in the media.
The BARI delegation reports that the Bt brinjal crop in farmer Haidul Islam’s field is currently “healthy and infestation-free”. The project team also spoke to the supposedly distressed farmer Haidul Islam, who revealed that the story began when two young men visited his farm and told him that he was growing a “poisonous” crop on his vegetable patch which would be bad for the health of him and his family. The two men did not reveal their identities, and moreover wore black cloth masks on their faces for the duration of their visit.
The two men, who were likely anti-GMO activists visiting from Dhaka, then tried to coerce Haidul Islam into saying that his crop had failed, informing him that he would be a “happy man” if he made a video statement (they had brought a camera for the purpose) saying that his crop was infested with pests and he felt cheated. Whether the intent was bribery or threatening physical coercion is not clear, but either way Haidul Islam refused to make the statement demanded of him as he felt there was nothing wrong with his crop.
However it does seem clear that Haidul Islam’s quotes were fabricated, and that the failure of his Bt brinjal crop was also invented by anti-GMO activists aiming to demonize the technology.

The way this blog blamed the journalists for producing fabricated news is totally misleading and we strongly condemn the false propaganda against the reporter. The journalist prepared the report based on a recent field-visit to Shaitali village in Gazipur district. The reporter talked to some of the local farmers including Haidul Islam at his bt brinjal field. The conversations with the farmers were also recorded and the voices of Mujibur Rahman and Haidul Islam are available with the reporter.

So the farmer quotes are real, and it is rather BARI and corporate agencies who are producing fabricated views. The reporters were not wearing black clothes or masks when they visited the field and the journalists did not compel the farmers to talk in a predetermined projected way as the blog/BARI claimed. To suggest the reporter’s intention was to bribe or threaten physical coercion in the conversations with the farmers is totally false. 

Now, with regard to the pest attacks. The original article contains no fabricated things; the journalists have the photos showing pest problems. The reporter Yasir Wardad never claimed he found fruit and shoot borer (FSB). The report has showed that *immature* Bt Brinjal plants have been attacked by severe pests (NB not shoot borer). Shoot borer hits the *mature* brinjal plant, specially the fruits. So the plants have to get the chance to mature in order for shoot borer resistance to be proved. Reporters have all the documents and facts findings in their keeping to prove that Bt Brinjal is vulnerable to many pests (again mind it, not shoot borer). Farmers were told that they would not need any pesticide if they grew Bt Brinjal. The reporter investigated it in Shaitail village and showed that immature Bt Brinjal plants were attacked by many pests (not shoot borer).

Bt protein will only prevent the attack from Fruit and Shoot Borer pest, but there are another 9 or 10 types of pests that may also attack the brinjal. The journalists went to the villages in question to see the fields where the brinjals were growing and they found that other pests had already attacked the brinjals. So here the question is not whether the Bt technology will prevent the FSB pests or not, the real matter is that remaining pests control is not possible by this Bt protein.

The blog was also misleading about the biopiracy of the local varieties of Bangladeshi Brinjal. The blog claimed as follows: 

The article goes on to quote unnamed “experts” as expressing “their grave concern that GMO brinjal would affect biodiversity and could cause severe health hazards to humans, other animals and plants”, and implies that Bt brinjal was developed at the behest of the “multinational seed giant Monsanto”. In reality, Bt brinjal is a joint public-sector project between the government-run Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) and scientists at Cornell University, with funding from USAID.

This blog is telling lies about the corporate agreement. The agreement that was signed between US company Monsanto’s Indian affiliate Mahyco and the Bangladesh Agriculture Research Institute states that Mahyco would get the intellectual property right to Bt Brinjal. When our farmers enjoy ownership of hundreds of varieties of brinjal, the BARI was sacrificing the ownership of brinjal to commercial companies. The BARI was hiding the agreement to give the corporation the control over the food supply. Section 1.19 of the tripartite agreement, said the Bt gene is a Monsanto or Mahyco technology and the intellectual property rights concerned will be infringed by unauthorised distribution of products containing the Bt gene. Sub-section (c) of Section 9.2 of the deal also noted that it can be terminated by the sublicensor or Mahyco if the laws and regulations in Bangladesh do not provide assurance of protection for commercial and intellectual property rights. So the agreement simply focuses on ensuring the commercial and intellectual property of Mahyco. This is surely a kind of biopiracy. We protest the act of biopiracy done by Monsanto-Mahyco and this patent aggression must be stopped.

Corporate agro giants Monsanto-Mahyco should be charged with the biopiracy of Bangladeshi varieties of brinjal. This patent aggression and biopiracy must be prohibited. We should protest against biocolonialism. 

Besides the IPR, the cross pollination will lead to gene transfer to the other brinjal varieties as well as other related plants, which will definitely cause genetic pollution. This genetic pollution must not be allowed asite will be harmful for the biodiversity of the country. Gene transfer to other brinjal varieties will pollute them. So bt brinjal cultivations in the long run will lead to mutation of traditional varieties. 

The health hazards also should be considered. The Mahyco Company had done 90 days test on rats but the tests were not performed according to the correct protocol. The chronic toxicity testing has yet to be done. In addition, the details of the Mahyco test have not been made public.

The release of genetically modified Bt Brinjal at the farmer level has drawn flak from experts and activists who claim the agencies concerned have not conducted any study on the toxic effect of the varieties.  Only a three-month ‘sub-acute toxicity test’ on some different cultivable Bt Brinjal varieties developed in India has been done by the ‘sublicensor’ of the technology, Maharashtrya Hybrid Seed Company Ltd (Mahyco), that neither provides the parameter to judge the longer term toxicity impact on human health nor can be applied to the four different cultivable varieties developed by one of its ‘sublicensees’, Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (Bari), they noted.