GM crops and loss of biodiversity : A Silent Death trap

The International Day for Biological Diversity on May 22 is observed to increase understanding and awareness on biological diversity that include ecosystemic variability and indigenous knowledge and/or cultural practices. In December 2000, the UN General Assembly adopted this day to commemorate the adoption of the text of the Convention on 22 May 1992 by the Nairobi Final Act of the Conference for the Adoption of the Agreed Text of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

In Bangladesh, the Ministry of Environment and Forest hardly observes the day, though Bangladesh has signed the CBD. Despite many valid critique of the text, people’s environmental and ecological movements consider the day as a historic moment. It has opened up a new epoch to rethink industrial civilization and social and economic relation that are environmentally and ecologically destructive. However, to achieve what has been aspired in the text is still an impossible task. Implementation of the text demands new configuration of alliances, power relations and institutions capable to transform the very structure of the global order that are inherently destructive. Consequently, biodiversity loss is going on rampantly creating a slow death trap for human being, animals, plants and all life forms.

Other factors notwithstanding, one of the causes for loss of biodiversity is the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in the environment. This is a concern that needs to be expressed on this day. The effects are not visible to the common people yet, less to the urban elite class. They do not see the genetic pollution of the natural species with numerous real and potential consequences; e.g., the involuntary transmission of resistance to herbicides in infesting plants, more resistant parasites are evolving, herbicides use is alarmingly increasing, many insect species are disappearing and the list can be long. In the rural areas farmers feel the effect, since they are close to the live world. In agrarian countries the GMOs are death traps for nature and suicide traps for the users, particularly the farmers and consumers.

GMOs may most aptly be described as silent death or suicide traps made for the people as consumers of food,  or as farmers when they are producers. Commercial company seeds rapidly replacing farmer seed system, and displacing farmer with industrial food producer. The diverse local crops, seeds, and knowledge practices capable to regenerate various life forms are disappearing Amid this ecological disaster Bangladesh government is ‘proudly!” declaring itself to be one of the 29 GM crop producing countries. They are desperate to introduce several genetically modified crops with support from controversial multinational corporations such as Monsanto, Syngenta etc. using public institutions such as Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) and some scientists uncrtical of the consequences.

The first GM crop introduced in Bangladesh is Bt Brinjal, a genetically engineered eggplant in 2013. The genetic engineering has been done by inserting a crystal protein gene, Cry1Ac from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) into the genome of brinjal cultivars. The insertion of the crystal protein gene, along with other genetic elements, such as promoters, terminators, and antibiotic marker gene into the brinjal plant is accomplished by using an Agrobacterium-mediated gene transformation. The Bt crystal protein gene contains a toxin that endows pest-resistance to Lepidopteran pests, such as the brinjal fruit and shoot borer (FSB). It is lethally toxic and works via binding to protein receptors in the gut of FSB larvae during its feeding on the Bt brinjal. It is now being cultivated by 20 selected farmers in four areas with four varieties Bt Uttara, Bt Kazla, Bt Nayantara and Bt ISD 006. Bt Brinjal is promoted on the argument that it will control Fruit and Shoot Borer (FSB) pest and therefore will save pesticide use. But the FSB is not the only pest of brinjal. There are a number of other pests, including insect pests, diseases and nematodes that inflict serious damage to brinjal crops causing heavy yield losses. The pro-GM scientists are claiming to reduce pesticide use and anyone who speaks against Bt Brinjal is blamed to be an “agent of the pesticide company”! Independent scientists in Bangladesh have shown through their calculation that this claim is false. Since 24,583 tons of insecticides are used for all crops occupying 14,943,000 ha, an estimated amount of insecticides to be used for 50,000 ha of brinjal crops may be only 82.3 tons. This estimated amount of insecticides is supposed to be saved if Bt brinjals occupy all the 50,000 ha of brinjal cultivated area, which is almost impossible.

When the environmental activists and farmers went to the field of Bt Brinjal in Ishwardi to raise awareness about the potential impact (that can be irreversible) on environment and human health, they were attacked by ruling party cadres. They said, as this is given by the Agricultural Minister they have to do it. It is “from the government”. Who cares if there are problems, why should others care about it? No one can stop them from cultivating it. It is the “child” of the Minister.

BARI claimed that the variety would be pest-proof and bring more profit than the fruit and shoot borer-prone local variety, while independent experts have persistently protested against its commercial cultivation on account of adverse impact on human health and environment. In May, New Age reported quoting the sub-assistant agriculture officer of Kaliganj, that 13 of the 20 fields having Bt Brinjal plants have seen no success. During a spot visit at four such fields, New Age journalist found that Bt Brinjal plants at some fields were either dead or struggling to grow. Besides, those growing well came under attack of shoot borer and other pests. Farmer Majibur said that his plants were growing well but suddenly came under attack of pests and started dying although the institute had claimed that BT brinjal was pest-proof. He said, ‘Why the BARI made me a guinea pig? Why they make experiments on Bt brinjal in lands of poor farmers like me?’ []

Journalists reporting on the performance failure of the Bt. Brinjal in Gazipur came under attack. On 7 April the Financial Express published a news article entitled ‘Pest-resistant Bt Brinjal comes under pest attack’, that farmers who are now cultivating insect-resistant genetically-modified brinjal (eggplant) were being forced to spray more pesticides than usual because of severe pest attack. The pro-GMO agents took the strategy of harassment by spreading serious and objectionable lie. In a blog named tumblr the Pro-bt brinjal agency shared a post named by “Anti-GMO activists in Bangladesh tell lies to farmers and the media”. The journalists are intimidated. On the other hand, company sponsored US journalist Mark Lynas visited Bangladesh to tell the socalled “True story”. According to Lynas “The stakes are admittedly high here: this is South Asia’s first GMO food crop, and has been developed in the public sector for distribution to resource-poor smallholder farmers. The powerful anti-GMO lobby knows that if Bangladeshi farmers successfully adopt this new crop, other GMO crops in the pipeline such as Golden Rice (also being developed in Bangladesh) will be advantaged and their cause of banning the technology permanently will be harmed.

Lynas is arrogant to the extent that he asks whether the journalists understand control group of Bt Brinjal. In the Bt Brinjal field there are no signboards to indicate which Bt. Brinjal is and which is non-Bt. Brinjal. Lynas himself would not be able to identify. In Ishwardi, I visited myself and did not find any control plot of brinjal. The field that had brinjal plants was only Bt. Brinjal according to the farmers. Are the farmers told about the difference? The local Agricultural Supervisor is giving advice for pesticide spray for the pest attacks in the struggling plants.

So Bt. Brinjal is clearly a “threat” to the freedom of speech. Reporting of the real fact is prohibited and only the corporate journalists have the right to give the “true story”.

It is beyond doubt that GM crops pose threats to plants, human health, farmers, crops, environment and to biodiversity. Science of genetically modified crops is new and has not been in the market for very long time. The promoters of GM crops claim these are safe (without enough evidence), while those who have evidences from animal research clearly see the potential dangers to human health. Yet, people are not allowed to talk against GM crops or GM food. Even in the Court, the petitioners seeking ‘precautionary measures’ are asked to bring evidence by which the very principles of precautionary considerations are ignored. The GM crops are mostly transgenic. It is created to solve one problem, but creates 10 others. For example, plants are inserted with insecticide gene to eliminate unwanted bugs. But the strongest insects survive and become superbugs. Farmers in many countries producing Bt Corn and Bt Cotton are battling with ultra hardy weeds because they are not responding to glyphosate (Monsanto’s Roundup Ready). So they are using more chemicals to combat these superweeds.

GM crops are aggravating the likelihood of elimination of vital beneficial bugs such as bees and butterflies. Honeybees continue to decline at a rate of 30 percent per year and butterfly populations have reached an all-time low. GM crops are perpetuating the widespread use of chemicals which started with the so-called Green Revolution and contributing to harm beneficial bugs and weeds.

Crops and plants in the nearby GM fields are at risk. They can be cross-pollinated and be infected without the knowledge of the farmers of non-GM crops and also be at risk of being sued by the GM company for “unintentional” growing of GM crops for not paying royalty to the owner company. There are several cases in Canada and US of farmers sued by Monsanto.

Biotech companies have been giving false promises to solve problems of pest attacks and thereby helping farmers to lower the cost and getting higher outputs. But in the case of Bt Cotton, farmers could not bear the increasing cost of seeds, pesticides and yet were getting much lower outputs. In the last decade, more than 125,000 Indian farmers committed suicide because of Monsanto’s costly seeds and pesticides. After use of Monsanto’s BT cotton in 2002 the rate of suicide in Indian farmers increased drastically. Ninety percent of Indian cotton farmers changed to Monsanto’s Bt crop hoping that Bt crop are pest resistant and they do not have to buy pesticides. However after a while Bt cotton’s pests resistant quality started fading away and pests adapted so farmers had no choice but to buy and use Monsanto's pesticides. []

GM crop seeds are patented by few giant companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Aventis. They prevent farmers from harvesting seeds in order to eventually have total control over the world’s seed supply and prices. Currently, few biotech giants control over half of the global seed market causing prices to skyrocket. For example, the average price of planting an acre of soybeans has gone up 325 percent since 1995.

Bangladesh agriculture is already suffering from reduction of crop, plant, fish and animal diversity after the introduction of monoculture and chemical-based modern agriculture. Globally large-scale monoculture crop production has resulted in a 75 percent reduction in plant diversity. Introduction of GM crops reduces the number of crops for large scale production controlled by the agribusiness and replace the local varieties, pollute them and cause destruction to many unknown weeds that are necessary for biodiversity. Herbicides used in GM crops are known to result in birth defects and population decline in amphibians, birds, soil organisms, and marine ecosystems

Bangladesh is a country of diversity of crops, having thousands of varieties of rice, several varieties of each vegetables, pulses, oil seeds etc. For brinjal, there are at least 248 varieties all over the country. Bangladesh is in the centre of origin for brinjals. Then why genetically modified brinjal is introduced which is a threat to the local brinjal varieties? Why genetically modified rice and potato are in the pipe line to be introduced, which we do not need?

So by introducing GM crops, Bangladesh is contributing to the loss of biodiversity and violating the Convention on Biological Diversity which states under Article 8 (g), which says

“Establish or maintain means to regulate, manage or control risks associated with the use and release of living modified organisms resulting from biotechnology which are likely to have adverse environmental impacts that could affect conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking into account the risks to human health”.

This violation is leading to a silent death trap for humans as well as plants, animals and micro-organisms. We must stop the loss of biodiversity.

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