Damaged Bt Brinjal in Bangladesh

“Typical” farmer growing non-GM local brinjal gains over twice the yield and over three times the income of farmers growing GM Bt brinjal. Report: Claire Robinson

A report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has claimed that GM Bt brinjal (eggplant/aubergine), which is genetically engineered to express its own insecticide, "helps farmers in Bangladesh earn more with less pesticide". IFPRI reported that the farmers growing Bt brinjal had 42% yield increase over those growing the non-GM parent variety and a $400 increase in profits per hectare.

IFPRI conducted the study in collaboration with the Bangladesh Agriculture Research Institute (BARI), Mahyco (an Indian partner of Monsanto), Cornell University, and Feed the Future. The study was funded by the US government's international development arm USAID. It's certain that the study report will be used for years to convince "developing" countries to adopt GM crops. So it is critically important that it is reliable.

However, an investigation by GMWatch has found that the report is giving a misleading impression of Bt brinjal’s performance. Crucially, the yields and income from the GM Bt brinjal crops appear to be poor. Farida Akhter, executive director of the Bangladesh-based civil society research group UBINIG, told GMWatch that farmers growing non-GM local varieties are getting far better yields and income.

Local brinjal markedly outperforms GM on yield and income

The GM Bt brinjal tested in the IFPRI study was Bt brinjal 4, which was developed from a non-GM high-yielding variety bred by BARI called ISD-006. The control variety grown in the study was ISD-006, the non-GM isogenic variety for Bt brinjal 4 (meaning it’s genetically the same but without the genetic modification).

The IFPRI report gives the net yield per hectare for Bt brinjal as 13,914.3 kg and for the non-GM brinjal as 10,483.1 kg (Table 7.1).

The total value of sales of Bt brinjal per hectare was 122,865 Tk.; sales of the control non-GM brinjal per hectare totalled 96,138 Tk (Table 8.6).

However, according to UBINIG, both figures are very low compared with those for a farmer that UBINIG followed in the same year, who cultivated the non-GM local variety Atghoria. Ms Akhter told GMWatch that he is not exceptional but typical in his performance: "Most farmers cultivating local varieties, particularly Atghoria variety, in this region have a similar income."

The farmer spent Tk. 12,000 to grow brinjals on a piece of land of 0.13 hectares. He obtained a yield of 4.48 metric tons (4,480 kg) of brinjals. His income from the sale of these brinjals was Tk. 53,760; net profit was Tk. 41,760. Per hectare this would be 33.18 tons (33,180 kg) of brinjal, with sales income of Tk. 398,160 and a net profit of Tk. 310,565.

In short, the farmer followed by UBINIG, by growing the local non-GM variety, obtained over twice the yield of the Bt brinjal-growing farmers in the IFPRI study. He also made over three times as much money per hectare in sales. His net profit was over twice the sales income of the Bt brinjal farmers. (The net profit of the Bt brinjal farmers will be lower than their sales income, as presumably they incurred some costs for inputs such as pesticides.)

Ms Akhter said, "The income is not very promising in the case of Bt brinjal. Any objective scientific economic analysis will demonstrate the agronomic superiority of high-performing local varieties. The IFPRI report represents misleading propaganda in favour of Bt brinjal."

Defenders of GM Bt brinjal may argue that UBINIG's single example farmer is not representative of farmers in general. But Ms Akhter's statement at least demands an objective analysis of average brinjal production in Bangladesh using well adapted local varieties before it is assumed that GM Bt brinjal is a success.

In fact, the IFPRI report acknowledges that yields for both Bt and control brinjal farmers in the study were below those obtained in other studies. It blames this on floods and other bad weather conditions affecting some of the districts where the study was carried out. With climate change, bad weather is likely to be a continuing challenge for Bangladesh’s farmers. So it’s important for their livelihoods that the performance of GM Bt brinjal is not hyped above the reality.

"Nannies" for the GM Bt crop?

What appears to be a less than impressive performance of the GM Bt and control brinjals in the IFPRI study occurred in spite of support given to the farmers in the form of training and supervisory visits by Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) officials, as detailed in the IFPRI report.

The report states that the Bt-growing and control farmers received the same training and supervision. The officials’ job was to monitor the study and "advise participating farmers on proper production practices" for the GM Bt and control brinjals.

According to UBINIG, at least two of the organisations involved in the IFPRI study – BARI and the DAE – have plenty of experience of helping farmers to grow GM Bt brinjal. Prior to the IFPRI study, in 2015, the second year of the Bt brinjal project in Bangladesh, UBINIG reported that the GM Bt brinjal crops were closely supervised and the crops nannied through their short lives by officials from BARI and the DAE.

UBINIG said: “During the field cultivation the farmers were extensively supervised by BARI and DAE officials. The DAE officials... visited daily or at least weekly and supervised the growth of the plants.” UBINIG added, “According to the farmers, most of the time, the officials took care of the plants themselves as they had to show a good performance.”

UBINIG said that the officials even replaced failing plants with new ones.

GMWatch wondered how much “nannying” the GM Bt brinjal in the recent study received from the IFPRI researchers and/or their BARI and the DAE collaborators.

The corresponding author of the IFPRI study, Akhter U. Ahmed, told us that no special treatment was given to the Bt brinjal by the supervisors: “Before the study commenced, the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) of the Bangladesh Ministry of Agriculture trained all 1,200 brinjal farmers – 600 brinjal farmers who were willing to grow Bt brinjal and 600 brinjal farmers who were willing to grow conventional brinjal under this study – on good agricultural practices, including pesticide spraying and handling.

“During the study, neither BARI, DAE, IFPRI, nor any other supervisory body ever handled pesticide or sprayed pesticide on behalf of the farmers on their plots.
“No special care/monitoring was provided by BARI/DAE/IFPRI for the treatment farmers—that is, those growing Bt brinjal under this study. No plants were replaced for any reason under this study.”

Whatever the degree of help given to the farmers growing GM Bt brinjal in the IFPRI study, this is a factor that, as IFPRI admits, "may not be maintained as Bt brinjal is scaled up". There will be no more nannying for GM Bt brinjal now that the study is over. So the poor performance of Bt brinjal as reported in the IFPRI study may deteriorate even further in real-farm conditions – putting farmers’ livelihoods at risk.

Farida Akhter believes the fact that supervision is needed at all for GM Bt brinjal does not bode well for the crop’s future in Bangladesh. She questioned some DAE officials in the districts of Narsingdi and Kushtia about their supervision of Bt brinjal-growing farmers. These officials and farmers were not necessarily involved in the IFPRI study but have taken part in the crop’s roll-out in the country. She said, “All of the officials said when they provided seeds, they supervised the farmers, including pesticide use. They said that without their support, farmers cannot handle such a crop. In particular, they said that Bt brinjal 4– the GM variety used in the IFPRI study – does not perform very well, but that despite its failures, they are instructed to give the seedlings to the farmers.

“The officials’ help is needed, since the seeds are unknown to the farmers and there are delays in fruiting and problems with plants rotting, which they do not experience in the case of conventional brinjals. So the DAE officials provide the pesticides, fertilizers and even cash money – we have heard Tk 4000 (USD 50).

“In Narsingdi the Bt brinjal seeds were Bt brinjal 2 and 4; the non-Bt farmers were given Singnath, a popular and high-performing traditional variety. The official said that the farmers want the Singnath variety but do not want to take Bt brinjal 2 and 4.

“The officials said that Bt varieties can only handle the fruit and shoot borer, but all other pest or fungal attacks are the same as non-Bt. So the farmers need pesticide. It is not at all pesticide-free. The local officials advise the farmers when they have to use pesticides, though the actual spraying is done by the farmers themselves.”

Why use a non-GM control that requires pesticides and fertilizer?

According to the IFPRI report, pesticide applications were reduced by 51% and quantity of pesticides used fell by 39% for the GM Bt brinjal, compared with the control brinjal.

However, UBINIG’s Farida Akhter said, “The farmers using traditional varieties do not have to use pesticides and the DAE officials do not have to visit any local varieties.

“Nor do they have to visit the high-yielding varieties and hybrid brinjals. These do require pesticides, but the farmers just buy the pesticides suggested by the dealers and spray themselves.”

Using the non-GM isogenic variety (genetically the same as the GM variety but without the genetic modification) as the control is correct practice in a scientific study evaluating the effect of a particular genetic modification – in this case, the Bt insecticidal gene insertion – on a crop. So if that was the aim of the IFPRI study, the researchers were correct to choose the ISD-006 as the control variety.

But if the goal was to reduce pesticide use, ISD-006 was a misleading choice.That’s because, as Ms Akhter explained, ISD-006 is a high-yielding variety, not a traditional variety, so it requires pesticides and fertilizers.

Thus using the non-GM isogenic variety as a control for the GM crop does not give a fair idea of the typical performance of non-GM crops in real farming conditions. Farmers will naturally select the best performing varieties for their particular conditions – and they may well be varieties other than the non-GM isogenic variety that is grown in a scientific study as the non-GM comparator for the GM crop under test.

Moving the goalposts

Ms Akhter accuses Bt brinjal promoters, including the Bangladesh government, of “moving the goalposts” with regard to the aims of the project: “The government initially claimed that Bt brinjal is ‘pesticide-free’; now in the IFPRI report, the claims have been changed to ‘reducing toxicity’ and ‘reducing pesticide use’.

“If reducing toxicity and pesticide use are the goals, then cultivating the traditional varieties, as opposed to hybrid varieties, is the solution. In a country where we have options for traditional varieties, why do we have to use a genetically modified crop, with its potential environmental and health hazards?”

Selective use of data to boost GM Bt maize

The choice of comparator for a GM crop trial can be crucial in giving an accurate picture of its performance in real-farm conditions. Howard Vlieger, a third-generation farmer based in Iowa, USA, hosted two-year comparative trials of GM Bt and non-GM maize for Monsanto in 1997–98. He reports that the comparator was “a good sound hybrid that had excellent natural resistance to the corn borer.” The results were not flattering to the GM crop: “Compared with the non-GM hybrid, the Bt lost money and yielded less in BOTH years.”

However, these results were not made public. Mr Vlieger says, “When the seed company saw these results in most plots they did not publish this data but rather the yield results from hybrids that were NOT good sound hybrids with natural resistance to the corn borer and when there was adequate corn borer pressure. Then the Bt made sense and paid for itself. The results did not lie, but the truth was not published.”

Resistance problem largely ignored

The IFPRI report pays brief lip service to the certainty that pests will evolve resistance to the Bt toxin in GM Bt brinjal, stating only that farmers were taught to create "refuges" around their Bt crops in the form of a band of non-Bt crops. The idea is that the refuges will sustain populations of pests that are susceptible to Bt toxins.

However, it's highly unlikely that refuges will work, for three reasons drawn from experience with Bt maize: farmers don't comply with refuge requirements, pests are able to live and reproduce in Bt crop fields, and non-Bt refuge plants become contaminated by cross-pollination with Bt toxin-producing genes.

GM Bt cotton has also failed in India due to the rapidly evolving resistance of pests to Bt toxins. GM Bt maize has failed for the same reasons in multiple locations across the globe.

So it is not a question of whether GM Bt brinjal will fail in Bangladesh, but when. Will IFPRI and Cornell University be standing by to help the farmers when the inevitable collapse unfolds?

The real health risks come from eating Bt brinjal

The IFPRI report says that farmers growing Bt brinjal were 6.2-7.5 percentage points less likely than the non-GM brinjal growing controls to report symptoms of pesticide poisoning – a 10% reduction. This seems a modest success only, if it is borne out in normal farming conditions.

However, any health risks posed by GM Bt brinjal are more likely to target consumers than farmers. There is good evidence that at least one type of Bt brinjal is toxic to rats. Rats are considered to reflect toxicological risks to humans. The environmental epidemiologist Dr Lou Gallagher examined the raw data of rat feeding studies commissioned by Mahyco-Monsanto (Monsanto's Indian partner) and found that the "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", and "toxic effects to the liver".

India refused Bt brinjal

Back in 2010 Dr Gallagher's findings, along with those of other scientists on aspects such as gene flow to native and wild varieties of brinjal and the risk of resistance evolution in pests to the Bt toxin, prompted India's then environment minister Jairam Ramesh to refuse to commercialise Bt brinjal in that country.

The GMO lobby appears to have taken advantage of the weaker regulatory system in Bangladesh to commercialise Bt brinjal.

It is not possible to investigate the health impacts of Bt brinjal in Bangladesh because no one can trace the consumers, due to fact that GM Bt brinjals do not carry a GMO label. The absence of such labelling is a violation of the conditions of approval.

Main problem with brinjal is not the fruit and shoot borer – so GM can't solve it

GM Bt brinjal is genetically engineered with Bt toxin to kill a pest called the fruit and shoot borer (FSB). But as UBINIG pointed out, the main problem facing brinjal farmers isn't crop losses from pest attack, but overproduction: The price "becomes very low in the season due to high productivity of the local variety brinjals". Accordingly, farmers can harvest "a bumper crop of brinjal" but as there are no price control mechanisms and no proper transportation, they can incur huge losses.

Indeed, the IFPRI study admits, "Brinjal prices plummeted in the market during the study period. Hence, the combination of lower yields and low prices resulted in lower revenue and profits compared to what was reported in other studies."

UBINIG concludes, "While the FSB infestation could be ‘solved’ by genetic modification... how to solve the low price problem? Can it be genetically modified? The answer is obviously ‘No’. So let’s not make a big deal about FSB infestation and allow the corporations like Monsanto to have control over our most important vegetable crop like brinjal. We should rather try to help the farmers with proper marketing and price mechanism."

Experiment at the expense of poor farmers

GM Bt brinjal appears set to end up as yet another over-hyped but ultimately unsuccessful GMO experiment at the expense of poor farmers, joining the long list of documented failures that have left a trail of damaged livelihoods behind them, such as GM cotton in India and Africa; and GM soy, maize, cassava and sweet potato in Africa. The compliant Bangladesh government, in allowing GM Bt brinjal into the country, has not learned from history and therefore seems doomed to repeat it.

Image of GM Bt brinjals rotting in a farmer's field courtesy of UBINIG

For more information on the widespread failure of GM Bt brinjal in Bangladesh (not connected with the IFPRI study), see these articles on the UBINIG website:
‘Misrepresentation’ of Bt brinjal farmers for corporate interest
Bt brinjal failed in farmers' fields