[DHAKA] Bangladesh has become the first South Asian country to approve commercial cultivation of a genetically modified (GM) food crop — brinjal (also known as eggplant or aubergine) spliced with a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis .
On 28 October, Bangladesh's National Committee on Biosafety (NBC) approved cultivation of four indigenous varieties of brinjal incorporating a gene from the B. thuringiensis (Bt) to make it resistant to attacks by the fruit and shoot borer (FSB), a common pest in South and Southeast Asia.
“We will make seeds and distribute them among the farmers. Hopefully, the vegetables will be available in the market next year,” Mohammad Rafiqul Islam Mondal, director-general of the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), tells SciDev.Net.
According to BARI scientists, the Bt protein in GM brinjal disrupts the digestive systems of the FSB pests, causing them to die within three days of ingestion.
The approval comes in the teeth of protests from a section of health, agriculture and environmental activists, accusing the government of ignoring the possibility of negative impacts on public health from consuming the GM version of a popular vegetable.
Farida Akhtar, founder of UBINIG, a Bangladeshi NGO which maintains community seed banks, says that Bangladesh is a 'centre of origin' of brinjal and home to over 100 varieties. "These varieties now face genetic contamination from the GM varieties through natural cross-pollination," she tells SciDev.Net.
NBC has, however, justified the approval saying that Bt brinjal would significantly reduce the need to use pesticides and announced that various safeguards were being put into place.
Bangladesh's Bt brinjal varieties are derived in part from similar GM varieties developed in India by the Tamil Nadu Agriculture University (TNAU) and Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company, the Indian subsidiary of the US-based Monsanto Corp.
While TNAU had announced that Bt brinjal was safe for consumption, widespread protests compelled the Indian government to order an indefinite moratorium on its release in February 2010.
The Philippines has also halted trials on Bt brinjal since 2011 because of health and safety concerns, represented by activists at its supreme court.
Contrastingly, Bangladesh is moving ahead to release more GM food crops, including a vitamin A-enriched rice variety called ‘golden rice’.
Exporters of agricultural produce in Bangladesh are apprehensive that GM crops may cause them to lose markets in importing countries opposed to the technology.
Bangladesh takes to GM food crops
Bangladesh approves transgenic eggplant
It becomes first South Asian country to allow GM food crops
Critics fear genetic contamination of natural brinjals