A new documentary exposes GM Bt brinjal as a US project that has led to losses for Bangladeshi farmers. Report: Claire Robinson
A powerful new documentary film, “Bt Brinjal in the Dock”, tells the story of the GM Bt brinjal venture in Bangladesh from the farmers’ point of view.
The film is a collaborative effort by around 30 activists and journalists, including Faisal Rahman and Delowar Jahan, whose investigative work GMWatch has featured. It strongly challenges claims of GMO promoters, including the BBC and Mark Lynas, that Bt brinjal in Bangladesh is a success.
The film begins by establishing that brinjal is an integral part of Bangladeshi culture, with scores of different varieties available in village markets and countless meals containing it being prepared every day.
But it soon becomes clear that the GM Bt brinjal programme in Bangladesh is an American project, controlled by US interests in partnership with private seed companies, including Monsanto and its Indian subsidiary Mahyco, and the Bangladeshi firm Lal Teer. The programme is funded by USAID under the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSP-II). It is promoted by Cornell University in the US in collaboration with its Bangladeshi partner, BARI (the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute).
Cornell’s Frank Shotkoski, who has been working on ABSP-II, is shown giving a speech in 2014. Shotkoski says, “I’m going to concentrate on what’s happening in South-East Asia. This is where we’re on the hump, we’re at the top. I can see in just a few years we’re ready to go over the hump and things are ready to really happen – if it’s allowed to happen. We’re right on the cusp, it’s a very fun time for you to be working in South-East Asia.”
If US interests succeed in their aim, control of brinjal seeds and crops in Bangladesh will shift wholesale from farmers to multinational seed companies, notably Monsanto.
Does this matter? For the Bangladeshi farmers who have grown Bt brinjal and are interviewed in the film, it matters a great deal. They report that this GM crop has suffered widespread failure, so a largely thriving and diverse crop would be replaced by a sickly and problematic one.
But footage in the film suggests that the promoters of the Bt brinjal project will seemingly say and do whatever is necessary to claim it as a success and keep it on track.
Promotional claims exposed
GM Bt brinjal is promoted in Bangladesh on the back of claims that it will increase yields and cut costs for farmers by preventing insect pest damage to brinjal crops. The film shows Shotkoski of Cornell claiming that a farmer in Jamanpur “did produce enough [brinjal] for his family and was impressed with the insect resistance in the Bt brinjal”.
But this claim – made not by the farmer himself but on his behalf by an American – is belied by an interview with the farmer in which he says all the brinjal plants (which he calls “government brinjal”) died out prematurely.
Another Cornell professor, Tony Shelton, is shown claiming that another farmer’s Bt brinjal field in Gazipur “was free of pest damage, and they were very pleased with the crop”.
But this account contrasts with the findings of a Bangladeshi journalist, M.H. Maswood, who wrote a report for the publication New Age, titled, “Bt brinjal farming ruins Gazipur farmers”. He tells the film makers, “Three out of the four farmers I visited were completely frustrated. They were upset because they had lost their yearly income.”
The Guardian confirms crop failure
Maswood’s report finds backing in an investigation in 2014, the first year of the Bt brinjal cultivation project, by the British newspaper, the Guardian. Its reporter spoke to 19 out of 20 farmers growing Bt brinjal and concluded: “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.”
But these failures didn’t stop the project being expanded the following year.
In 2015 BARI gave Bt brinjal seedlings to 108 farmers. The film makers visited 16 of them. All but one had suffered crop failure. One farmer shows on camera a fruit-and-shoot borer in a Bt brinjal fruit, suggesting either that the Bt trait does not always express in sufficient amounts to kill the pest or that some pests are already resistant.
Several farmers in the film describe the failure of the Bt brinjal crops due to bacterial wilt and the plants dying out prematurely before fruits could be harvested. And although Bt brinjal is promoted to farmers and buyers as a pesticide-free crop, this is false. According to a previous investigation by the Bangladeshi NGO, UBINIG, farmers were told to spray the crop with numerous pesticides, including banned ones.
But the film shows that even this chemical arsenal didn’t save the crop. In one scene, a farmer from Gazipur shows wilting and dying Bt brinjals in his field. A family member comments that in the past, the farmer grew a variety of vegetables to feed his family, but “the agri officials persuaded him into the [Bt brinjal] project”.
After the GM crop failed, the farmer found himself abandoned by the officials. His relative says, “He gets scoffed at whenever he raises complaint. They [the agricultural officials] make an issue out of the weeds in the field, though only few of the eggplants are surviving there. He is in dire straits now – he can’t even afford to buy the necessary items to feed the family.”
Blame the farmer
The officials’ callous treatment of this man is an example of the “blame the farmer” syndrome that all too often becomes prevalent when GM crops fail. It works like this. When GM crops do well or when benefits are found to accrue to farmers growing them, all the positives are ascribed to the wonders of GM technology, even when a myriad other factors might have come into play. But when GM crops do badly, it’s the farmers’ fault and nothing to do with GM technology.
The film gives more examples of farmers being blamed for Bt brinjal’s failure. At a heated meeting between farmers, journalists and Bt brinjal project organisers at the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council, a farmer, Haidul Islam, complains that the Bt brinjal seeds he was given failed for a second time. Dr Rafiqul Islam Mondal, director general of BARI, criticizes the farmer for failing to weed. In a sinister aside, Mondal also rebukes the farmer for talking to outsiders (the film makers) about the crop; apparently someone saw their car on Haidul Islam’s land and reported the ‘crime’ to BARI.
In the case of the farmers growing Bt brinjal in Bangladesh, the “blame the farmer” tactic is especially unconvincing, as they are long-established experts in growing locally adapted non-GM brinjals. One savvy farmer interviewed in the film calls out the officials on their deception. M. Masud Sarkar says officials told him to plant local non-GM brinjals along the border of his field. “I asked them why the border plants had survived, whereas the [Bt] brinjal variety they gave died out. They said the plants had died because of grass. I asked why the other varieties had not died because of grass.”
Naturally, they had no answer.
Redefining failure as success
The Bt brinjal project has had to use creative thinking and doublespeak in order to redefine failure as success. A BBC Panorama programme that hyped GM crops claimed that Bt brinjal was a 90% success in its second season in Bangladesh. Inquiries by GMWatch revealed that there was no documented, peer-reviewed or published evidence behind the claim. While the BBC said the source of the 90% figure was Cornell, Cornell said it didn’t have the evidence and that BARI was the source. BARI couldn’t provide any evidence, either.
Our investigation revealed that Joseph McAuley, the producer and researcher of the BBC Panorama programme, and BARI’s Mondal defined 90% success as referring only to the successful expression of the Bt toxin against the fruit-and-shoot borer. When it came to problems like bacterial wilt, premature dying out of the plants, and unattractiveness to buyers in the marketplace, they simply ignored them.
Based on the misleading nature of the programme, GMWatch and others complained to the BBC. At the end of a long-drawn-out exercise in which the BBC investigated itself, it finally dismissed all complaints. In its response, the BBC said Cornell is such a “highly credible source” that it’s immaterial whether its claims are peer-reviewed or published. The BBC provided no evidence that the 90% success claim was correct: no numbers, no farmers’ names, nothing that could be checked. And it defended the contrived and logically indefensible definition of “90% success” employed by McAuley and Mondal.
The film shows how the meaning of the word “success” began to be corrupted from the first season of Bt brinjal cultivation. In most plots, the plants died at the fruiting stage. BARI’s senior scientific officer, Dr A.K.M. Kamruzzaman, admits that “The [Bt] brinjal plants died because of bacterial wilt.” He adds that this was “not in all the plots… let’s say in many plots” and that the programme was “not fully” a success.
But the honesty ends there. In the next breath, the deception takes over. Kamruzzaman continues: “But for us it is a success because it [the Bt brinjal project] became known in many places… But we don’t want to admit it’s not totally successful because there was bacterial wilt.”
So there we have it – the success that they can’t admit was not a success.
This is all rather reminiscent of other GM showcase projects for Africa, the supposed success of which generated vast amounts of global media coverage until it eventually emerged that the claims being made were bogus.
BBC showcase farmer found plants died out prematurely
The BBC Panorama programme showcased a single farmer, Hafizur Rahman, to proclaim the success of Bt brinjal. After the BBC cameras left, the Bangladeshi journalist Faisal Rahman followed up by visiting Hafizur, who reported that he had stopped taking care of the Bt brinjal field because the plants had been dying out prematurely.
Faisal Rahman told us at the end of this June that Hafizur is not yet growing Bt brinjal again this year – it is uncertain whether he will or not. When Faisal Rahman asked him in 2015 whether he would go in for Bt brinjal cultivation for the second time, he replied he was not sure. Yet an article by Mark Lynas is still posted on Cornell’s Alliance for Science website, using quotes from Hafizur to hype Bt brinjal.
According to Farida Akhter, director of the NGO, UBINIG, “very few” farmers from the second round of cultivation wanted to grow it in the third round. If it really had been a success, she points out that there would have been a strong demand from farmers.
The experience of one of the farmers interviewed in the film suggests that the organizers of the Bt brinjal project know the problems with the crop and arrange the timing of publicity events accordingly. The farmer describes how the project organizers “arranged a field day to show the success of my brinjal field” for when the plants had only just begun bearing fruit – before the problems with the crop dying out prematurely had set in. The farmer says, “They arranged the field day at that time to claim success in their own way. They showed their success to the government and the foreigners. It was they who succeeded, not the farmers – the farmers faced losses.”
Toxic effects ignored
The question of whether Bt brinjal is safe to eat is raised in the film. Dr Kamal Uddin of the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (BARC) claims in the film that Bt brinjal has been through toxicity and allergenicity tests at Dhaka University. But Dr Latiful Bari of Dhaka University says that while such tests are required for GMOs, “Such tests can’t be conducted here.”
Concerns were raised about safety by the chair of the National Biosafety Institute and a representative of the Directorate General of Health Services in the National Biosafety Committee that approved the crop in 2013. But the committee ignored their concerns and approved cultivation of four Bt brinjal varieties.
Dr Bari says, “I don’t find any logic for such a haste for business, to treat people like guinea pigs.”
Cornell's Bangladeshi partner BARI claims Bt brinjal is safe to eat based on tests by the Indian company Mahyco, a partner of Monsanto. But Zobaer Al Mahmud, assistant professor in clinical pharmacy and pharmacology at Dhaka University, comments that he has seen Mahyco’s studies and “the standard protocol was not maintained”.
Mahyco’s own studies show Bt brinjal is toxic
In fact, Dr Al Mahmud is being kind to Mahyco.
A New Zealand scientist who examined Mahyco’s studies on Bt brinjal variety Event EE1, one of the varieties released in Bangladesh, raised serious concerns that are not mentioned in the film.
Dr Lou Gallagher, an environmental epidemiologist and risk assessment expert, analysed the raw data of Mahyco’s 14- and 90-day studies in the Bt brinjal dossier. She states in her report:
“Results from these rat feeding studies indicate that rats eating Bt brinjal experienced organ and system damage: ovaries at half their normal weight, enlarged spleens with white blood cell counts at 35 to 40 percent higher than normal with elevated eosinophils, indicating immune function changes; toxic effects to the liver: as demonstrated by elevated bilirubin and elevated plasma acetylcholinesterase."
Gallagher concludes: "Major health problems among test animals were ignored in these reports. The single test dose used was lower than recommended by the Indian protocols. Release of Bt brinjal for human consumption cannot be recommended given the current evidence of toxicity to rats in just 90 days and the studies' serious departures from normal scientific standards.”
Mondal of BARI sees no reason for caution, however. When a journalist asked him whether BARI had conducted any research to find out whether Bt brinjal would harm human health, Mondal “became furious and asked reporters to set up their laboratories to carry out the research as Bangladesh had no laboratories to conduct such research”.
Mondal’s cavalier attitude to food safety and transparency may explain why Bangladesh has proved a fertile ground for US GMO promoters. The film makes clear that they have chosen the right man for the task of fronting the campaign to push GMOs into the country. In an extraordinary scene, Mondal indulges in a furious rant in which he presents his vision for a GMO-spawning Bangladesh.
In full demogogic mode, Mondal shouts: “Those who are protesting against GMO crops… Let me tell you something… Next year, our GMO potato will be released. GMO rice will be released one-two years after that… the trial of golden rice has been carried out on our own campus. It is being done by BRRI [Bangladesh Rice Research Institute]. So it may have been their concern that if they fail to stop this (Bt brinjal), they’ll also fail in stopping the other (GM) crops. Maybe that is why they are protesting.”
Mondal’s rant confirms the view of anti-GMO campaigners that Bt brinjal is the Trojan Horse that will force the door open for other equally unproven GM crops.
Public interest project?
While Mondal and other GMO promoters portray the Bt brinjal programme as a public interest project of the Bangladeshi government, the film reveals a different picture.
The film makers show “Myths and Reality”, a BARI publication of 2014 which accuses anti-GMO campaigners of perceiving Bt brinjal as the means for companies like Mahyco-Monsanto to take control of the seeds in South Asia. The publication terms this perception a myth and claims that Monsanto-Mahyco doesn’t have any intellectual property (IP) rights over Bt brinjal.
But Mondal directly contradicts this claim in the film. He admits that Monsanto-Mahyco holds the IP rights to the Bt gene. Mondal says, “They are the owners of this gene, they hold the rights all across the world. USAID spent money to buy it for us… they told us to distribute it free of cost and not to do business.”
It is unclear how long, and for how many GM seeds, this arrangement will apply.
Meanwhile the private seed company Lal Teer is planning to market their Bt brinjal varieties. They’ve developed hybrid varieties for engineering with Monsanto-Mahyco’s Bt trait.
Until now, brinjal has been the public property of the Bangladeshi people. Now the concern is that Bt brinjal will cross-pollinate with local varieties. If that happens, then because of the new genetic characteristics, Monsanto will become the owner of these new brinjals.
More is at stake than ownership. The very future of the brinjal crop is in the balance. Bangladesh is a genetic centre of origin for the crop. So GM contamination of the crop would have serious and potentially irreversible consequences, not only for Bangladesh, but in every country where brinjal is eaten.
A scientist points out in the film that because one gene does not equal one trait, the genetic characteristics of the local brinjals may change in unpredictable ways (this is something that the farmers who grew Bt brinjal were not told). Given the poor performance of the GM crop thus far, it seems likely that any changes that result from contamination will be for the worse.
The Bangladeshi constitution says the government must protect all the country’s genetic resources and biodiversity. Opponents of the Bt brinjal programme say that nine local brinjal varieties have been given away to Monsanto-Mahyco to genetically engineer and develop patented varieties.
As Farida Akhter of UBINIG comments in the film: “If the centre of origin is destroyed, the world will lose it.”
“Bt Brinjal In the Dock” should be seen by all those who care about the future of food and farming, not only in Bangladesh, but globally.