Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

A Round of Applause for Bangladesh Please, Where Science Trumps Sensationalism

By Ryan LeePublished November 9, 2014

Genetic engineering in agriculture is a highly polarizing topic with significant political opposition around the world. At the same time, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, hold enormous potential to benefit farmers and consumers, particularly in developing countries. The development of GMO brinjal (eggplant) had been stalled on the subcontinent for years by political opposition from environmental groups until about one year ago when Bangladesh approved the crop. The results from the first year of cultivation are in.
By Ryan Lee, 11/9/14

October 30th, 2014 of this year marked an important anniversary for biotechnology on the subcontinent and for poor farmers in one of the poorest countries in the world, Bangladesh. On October 30th of 2013, the country approved for the first time the cultivation of genetically modified brinjal, better known in the West as aubergine or eggplant. The crop in question is modified to express an insecticidal protein originally derived from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis and hence is called Bt brinjal. The approval of Bt brinjal is an incredibly important step forward for Bangladeshis, nearly half of  whom are employed in agriculture. The scale of the dispersal of seeds has been extremely small so far, only enough for 20 farmers working about two hectares of land total, but plans are in the works to expand the availability of these GM varieties in the immediate future and make them available to the public. This policy of promotion has come in spite of marked opposition from anti-GMO activists, such as Greenpeace or Navdanya, who wield considerable political power internationally. Having taken this bold step forward the government of Bangladesh has shown a refreshing degree of political courage as well as a true regard for its poorest and most vulnerable citizens.  

The technology that has produced these crops is heavily stigmatized, but relatively few truly understand the process or its implications.  It is claimed by many opposition activists that the technology is unpredictable. Many demand a moratorium on any and all use of GMOs. The fact is though that the techniques of genetic engineering are very precise and statistically have proven to be no more likely than traditional breeding techniques to create toxic food.  The same Bt technology has been in use for nearly twenty years now in other food and feed crops and has been endorsed as being extremely safe by organizations such as the American Medical Association, the European Food Safety Administration and the National Academies of Science of numerous countries.  The government of Bangladesh did not rush headlong into this decision, but spent seven years considering the merits and pitfalls of allowing cultivation.  Ultimately, as stated by the Agricultural Minister of Bangladesh, protesters who oppose GMOs and tried to disrupt this project "are not accountable to people but we are." So, the Bangladeshi authorities listened to the most reasonable voices in the discussion and acted in their people's best interest.

The preliminary results of this bold experiment are now in, and though the sample size may be small, it is thus far a resounding success. On the farms where the genetically engineered crops were grown, the farmers did not have to spray once in the entire growing season, allowing them to pocket a savings of about $130 US while simultaneously reducing harm to their health and the health of the environment. Total yield also increased compared to conventionally grown crops and yielded superior crops at market. Looking ahead, there are about 150,000 more brinjal farmers in Bangladesh who could stand to benefit from the GMO varieties.  If all 50,000 hectares currently devoted to brinjal were converted to GMO brinjal, the total economic gain could reach a total of $93.4 million, nearly doubling the incomes of those farmers.  So kudos, Bangladesh, and Joy Bangla!