Any day now, a hundred Bangladeshi smallholder farmers will be planting their annual aubergine crop. But this year this select band will not be planting their usual seeds of the crop they call brinjal and many know as the eggplant.
These family farmers, chosen by the country’s agricultural researchers, will be growing a genetically modified (GM) variety. Bt brinjal has been developed by crop scientists in Bangladesh and neighbouring India to fight off insects that often halve yields and force farmers into daily spraying with dangerous pesticides. If all goes well, in a few months the harvest will be on sale in local markets across Bangladesh.
Some will be appalled. They will decry it as the latest manifestation of an alien technology taking over farming, wrecking the natural environment. But I suggest that, with World Food Day approaching, we should celebrate this new weapon in the war to help smallholders feed their families safely, and on limited land. Ecosystem services may be protected rather than squandered.
This is not a Western technology imposed on unwilling farmers. It is actually a great example of crop scientists from the South harnessing GM technology for the benefit of small farmers and their families. By raising yields and cutting the use of pesticides by this most disadvantaged group, it will further the aims of the slogan adopted for this year’s World Food Day on the theme of family farming: “Feeding the world, caring for the earth.”
There are three reasons to fear GMs. They might, in a word coined by Greenpeace campaigners some years ago, create “Frankenfoods” that are dangerous for us all. They might contaminate wild relatives of the crops with rogue genes spliced into the crops. And they might further the domination of agribusiness over world food supplies and the lives of hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers.
Well, the fear of Frankenfoods looks like a busted flush. GM crops have been in the food chain in some places for a couple of decades now without obvious problems.
Genetic pollution, while certainly possible for some crops, hasn’t happened on any scale and – on the evidence of millennia of conventional plant breeding – seems unlikely. While South Asia is the genetic heartland of its wild relatives, those tested are sexually incompatible with Bt brinjal, say the scientists involved.
For many, that is a much bigger and more immediate issue, especially with key GM technologies dominated by a handful of companies -- most notably, and most notoriously, Monsanto. But do we have to translate a fear of big bad agribusiness into a fear of GMs? Why, to put it another way, should the devil have all the best tunes? If our main problem with the technology is who owns it, then let’s liberate it for the common good.
That, I suggest, is what is going on in South Asia right now. Or will if some very angry and very influential anti-GM campaigners can be got out of the way.
Bt brinjal illustrates the issues well. Bt stands for Bacillus thruinglensis,a common soils bacterium. Bt brinjal has spliced into it a gene from the bacterium which produces a toxin that kills many insect pests, including the larvae of the fruit and shoot borer moth, the biggest threat to brinjal. It dramatically reduces the amount of pesticides that farmers need to use to fight the larvae, and so will increases their yields.
Yes, the technique is owned by Monsanto. And the company got a lot of stick for initially charging high prices for Bt cotton, when it was first introduced in India two decades ago to fight bollworm. But Monsanto doesn’t see any profits in a crop like brinjal. Though one of South Asia’s most popular vegetables, it is mostly grown by poor smallholders. So a decade ago, the company gave local scientists free use of the gene to put into brinjal and other local crops, such as chickpeas.
Now, Bt brinjal is on the verge of making it to market in Bangladesh. It could do the same in India if the new government of Narendra Modi lifts a moratorium on trials imposed by its predecessor back in 2010 after a virulent campaign by Greenpeace and other environmentalists.
A win for family farmers
Local scientists I spoke to while visiting the two countries recently insisted their aim was to help poor local farmers. That was why they had prioritised developing Bt brinjal over other crops. And that was why they had ensured that, unlike Monsanto’s Bt cotton, which is a hybrid, farmers will be able to propagate their own Bt brinjal seeds for the next crop.
They said they had a range of nine different GM brinjals in the pipeline, each with their own characteristics, because they want to maintain the variety of types currently available to farmers. They denied there would be any significant loss of agro-diversity. And they said that a combination of reduced pesticide spraying and the prospect of much higher yields could significantly reduce pressure on the natural environment in areas where brinjal is grown.
Now you might see Monsanto’s free licensing of their technology for brinjal as a Trojan Horse to get GMs into potentially big seed markets like India. You might be right. But surely it is also a chance to take a valuable new technology out of the hands of its rich owners and use it in the service of family farmers.
Depending on the view you take, you will be either appalled or delighted that local scientists have other GM crops under development that are specifically designed for smallholders. They include a Bt chickpeas, a drought-tolerant sorghum, and a potato resistant to late blight.
And of course there is golden rice, another GM crop developed by researchers using largely public funds and for the benefit of the poor. Enriched with Vitamin A to alleviate a widespread and lethal dietary deficiency in many countries, golden rice has been ready to come out of the lab for a decade now. But as yet, no country has taken the first step of licensing it. It is a failure that some believe is responsible for millions of deaths every year.
The fact is that in South Asia, publicly-funded local scientists are deciding what GM crops to develop and how the technology is deployed. Surely this is something that deserves support from those of us whose concerns about GM food crops are primarily about who controls the seeds? SR Rao, who helps manage GM trials at the Indian government’s Department of Biotechnology, told me: “I can’t let 100 million people go hungry if we can do a transformation in crop yields and nutrition with GMs.”
Opponents of GM crops invoke the precautionary principle. They say that no risk from such crops, however small, should be tolerated. But they apply this principle only to the environmental and food-safety fears that they have themselves stoked remorselessly. Why not set beside that the need to take a precautionary approach to preventing deaths from malnutrition? On World Food Day, that might give a different answer.