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Farida Akhter


Sunday 21 December 14



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Outgoing US Ambassador to Bangladesh recently wrote an article in Dhaka Courier uncritically promoting genetically modified Bt Brinjal in a country considered belonging to the bioregion where global wealth of biodiversity originated. He often expresses his love for Bangladesh, and we, as a humble nation, never failed to acknowledge his feelings. Nevertheless, his article stands absolutely contrary to the prem (love) he often likes to explicitly project. ( See 'From Iowa to Bangladesh, technology shaping the future of agriculture'.

Mr. Dan Mozena must be intelligent enough to realize that promoting GMOs has all the potential hazards to destroy our agriculture and the food systyem; It may irreversibly jeopardize the livelihood of the farming communities. It's shocking that he is leaving behind such a toxic position and propaganda material on behalf of genetically modified eggplants  just before he is departing  from Bangladesh.

This is also unbelievable the extent to which the local US Embassy can be so ignorant about what is happening since the so called 'approval' in 2013  with regard to the Bt Brinjal field cultivation. As a result Ambassador is totally unaware of the issues and concerns for the health and environmental safety. The critical debate about the intellectual property right of the eggplant varieties that has been genetically modified is equally important and seriously raises concerns about the bilateral trade agreements between Bangladesh and USA. 

We strongly protest his position. Following is the article written by Farida Akhter in response to Ambassador Dan W. Mozena's article. We appreciate Dhaka Courier ( 19 December 2014/Vol 31/ Issue 23) for publishing the response along with the article of the US Ambassador.

For ease of reference, we are also reprinting the article of US Ambassador Dan Mozena, with kind acknowledgement to Dhaka Courier.

KEEP BANGLADESH AGRICULTURE FREE FROM HARMFUL TECHNOLOGIES

Farida Akhter

The article written by American Ambassador to Bangladesh Dan W. Mozena “From Iowa to Bangladesh, technology shaping the future of agriculture”, published in certain sections of the media on December 9, 2014 was a surprise and a shock to any sensible person aware of the danger of introducing GMOs in a biodiversity-rich country like Bangladesh; one does not need to be a scientist or environmentalist to see that Bangladesh is not Iowa.

Mr. Mozena couldn’t be right. In 2012 GMO Crop Planting in National Wildlife Refuges has been rejected by U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg. The federal government argued that the environmental groups’ lawsuit was moot because the Fish and Wildlife Service had already agreed to stop the practice of planting after 2012. “Plaintiffs allege harms that are currently occurring and will continue throughout 2012,” wrote U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg, an appointee of President Barack Obama. He wants GMO planting should be stopped immediately: “waiting for 2013 is not good enough.” In a lawsuit the Center for Food Safety and two other groups argued that the Fish and Wildlife Service violated environmental laws in allowing genetically modified crops in the agency’s Southeast Region, which encompasses 10 states. The groups claimed the practice has harmful environmental impacts. The most common genetically modified crops planted were corn and soybeans resistant to the herbicide Roundup.

Mr. Mozena’s claim that the use of genetically engineered soybeans resulted in wildlife resurgence has no scientific basis or empirical evidence, and he is clearly taking opposite stand to the legal regimes and norms of his own country to ensure wild life safety. He must prove with evidence that ‘within only a few years wildlife that had disappeared many decades earlier had returned in ever growing numbers’. It is absolutely irresponsible and a disservice to the people of Bangladesh to justify the introduction of Bt brinjal based on personal stories with no scientific basis or empirical evidence. Mr. Mozena spoke with only one farmer in Pabna, no name mentioned, out of the four in that area who planted Bt brinjal. The others would have different stories to tell.

The US ambassador’s blind and uncritical support to Bt. Brinjal without enquiring properly what happened in Bangladesh since its approval in 2013 to field cultivation in 2014 has serious diplomatic consequences as well. It utterly reflects US ambassador’s lack of knowledge about the serious issues raised by the environmental and farmers groups within the country and also by scientists and activists around the world. Despite so many newspaper reports in English and Bengali newspapers about Bt brinjal’s performance failure, loss to the farmers, non-compliance of the approval conditions (non-labeling of the crop in particular), ineffective monitoring by BARI – the government research institution responsible for its proper monitoring, US Embassy has hardly any knowledge to properly inform the ambassador about the real picture. The honourable ambassador had to visit and speak only with a farmer, albeit accompanied by government official, to ‘encourage further exploration and development of genetically engineered seeds’. He is giving the same information as the government. What a coincidence! I urge him at least to read the series of articles published on the Ubinig website.


btbrinjal

Indian activists protesting aginst Bt brinjal.


The controversial food crop Bt. Brinjal is supported by its promoters despite its proven potential hazards for human health, environment and biodiversity. The field cultivation of Bt. Brinjal during 2014 was a “failure” beyond any doubt. However, Bangladesh Agriculture Research Institute ( BARI) continues to distort the facts by falsely claiming that “15 out of the 20 farmers who planted Bt Brinjal have seen significant increase in the marketable yield; the produce of five farmers were impacted due to disease attack at the seedling phase. But the disease was caused by pests other than the fruit and shoot borer (FSB),” (see ‘More Bangladeshis to Eat BtBrinjal’ in The Daily Ittefaq, September 1, 2014).

The actual fact is that BARI has not been able to comply with the minimum requirements of the approval conditions given by National Committee on Biosafety on October 30, 2013. All the 20 farmers who were selected for the first round of field cultivation were monitored by the BARI regional research stations, yet 16 farmers have incurred loss by not having adequate yield. There were pest attack on leaves and fruits proving the claims of Bt. Brinjal to be free from pests and that it is free from the use of pesticides to be false. The farmers not only disclosed these facts to the journalists and activists, but also to the officials at the formal meeting organized by BARI about the performance of the field cultivation in September, 2014. The farmers claimed that their fellow farmers cultivating local varieties have earned much profit during the same time.

The present government led by the Awami League is in its so-called “second term” through a controversial election held on January 5, 2014 has hardly any moral, political or constitutional legitimacy. The country is ruled literally by brute power, coercion and silencing the opposition both on the street as well in the media. This is the most ideal political situation for multinational corporations to dump products that could otherwise not pass the regulatory barrier, no matter how minimal they are, particularly for GMOs that must face the regime known as ‘precautionary principle’. This is a safeguard modern science felt compelled to enact in order to protect environment, the living world and all life forms since GMOs are unpredictable and unlike other technologies, their consequences could be irreversible for the biological world. It is an interesting question why at this time, Ambassador Mozena is invited to visit Bt Brinjal farmers.

U.S. Ambassador Dan Mozena, is very well known for his “tours” around the country and his simplicity of being with common people. He might be a farmer –at-heart, but in fact merely a producer of industrial food crops. Farming or agriculture as we have in Bangladesh is not industrial food production. So, unfortunately we can’t accept him as an expert in agriculture. He cannot have the knowledge of the farmers of Bangladesh who have contributed so much to the enhancement and preservation of biodiversity. Our farmers have been feeding the millions of people of this country with many local varieties of brinjals and have managed well with the pest management. The local variety brinjals are well-resistant to pests, but the hybrid varieties have been affected by pest attack because of their pesticide-dependent seed varieties and also monoculture practices. We are all against pesticide use and therefore even the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has now been promoting Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

He perhaps knows that Bt. Brinjal research sponsored by USAID’s ABSP II project was a three country initiative covering India, The Philippines and Bangladesh, but it is only Bangladesh which was found to be so “easy” to get approval from The National Biosafety Committee under the Ministry of Environment, GOB without proper appraisal of the findings of the confined field trials during a turbulent political situation in 2013 just before the election.

It is a myth that Bt Brinjal crops “dramatically” reduces the use of harmful pesticides. Our visits in the farmers’ fields showed completely different results. Fruit and shoot Borer resistant Bt brinjal was expected to be free from insect infestation but the Bt Brinjal plants in Pabna farmer’s field were affected by insects not only on leaves but on fruits as well. Flowers in some plants were rotten and fruits were damaged due to insect attack.

A farmer in Rangpur had a sign board on a laminated paper stating “BARI Bt brinjal 1(Uttara) free from insects”. There was no mention that it was Genetically Modified. People do not automatically understand what Bt. means. The sign also gave false message. It was not entirely free from use of insecticide, because the farmers have used insecticide (Malathion), fungicide (cumplex) and miticide (omite) at the advice of the Agricultural Extension officers and at his own decision.

At the time of our own investigative visits one farmer was found separating the insect infested brinjal (FSB) and taking the unblemished ones for selling in the market. At that time about 7kg insect infested Bt brinjal was piled up there near him. [for more information visit www.ubinig.org]


Tushar

Tushar Chakraborty, speaking in a meeting in Bangladesh organised by Shasthya Anadolon and Nayakrishi Andolon

In a recent article in Economic and Political Weekly Dr. Tushar Chakrabarty rightly anticipated the threat  introduction of Bt Brinjal poses for the South Asia region. He says: "Bangladesh becomes the first country in south Asia to allow the cultivation of transgenic Bt-Brinjal. The Sheikh Hasina government cleared limited scale cultivation, with some conditions, of four varieties of GM eggplant for four different agro-climatic zones, all bordering different Indian states. The borders between Bangladesh and India are not impermeable; in addition to the seeds slipping in illegally, the birds, insects, rivers and wind ‒who do not observe political borders‒ could also lead to gene contamination, making the moratorium in India practically redundant. If we are not alert to this risk of gene flow and contamination, sooner or later, this may even be cited as a reason for demanding environmental release of Bt-Brinjal in India, as it happened with Bt-Cotton in the past" ( see "Release of Bt-Brinjal in Bangladesh: A Threat to the Region" in EPW. Vol - XLVIII No. 50, December 14, 2013).


It is also to be noted that a tripartite agreement was signed by Mahyco, Sathguru Management Consultants Private Ltd (India) and Bangladesh Agriculture Research Institute on March 14, 2005 for the development and release of cultivable Btbrinjal varieties in Bangladesh. It clearly states that Monsanto-Mahyco preserves all the intellectual property rights of the technology. Mahyco is a subsidiary of US-based seed company Monsanto and Sathguru Management Consultants Private Ltd. is the regional coordinator of the South Asian region for the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II of USAID. The agriculture ministry confirmed that IP rights of the Bt brinjal is surely of Monsanto-Mahyco’s. ‘The most striking point of the agreement is that BARI has given indemnity to Monsanto-Mahyco and Sathguru for any kind of disaster concerning Bt brinjal research.’ BARI has no right to even infuse Bt gene into a new variety (‘Monsanto’s Indian affiliate to win IP right of Bt brinjal’, February 23, 2014, The Financial Express; ‘Mahyco ‘owns’ Bt brinjal, not BARI and never the farmers!’, February 27, 2014).

Section 1.19 of the tripartite agreement, said all Bt gene is a Monsanto or Mahyco technology and the intellectual property rights of the concerned will be infringed by unauthorized distribution of products containing Bt gene.

Sub-section (c) of Section 9.2 of the deal noted that it can be terminated by the sub-licensor or Mahyco if the laws and regulations in Bangladesh do not provide assurance of protection for commercial and intellectual property rights. (‘Mahyco ‘owns’ Bt brinjal, not BARI and never the farmers!’, Financial Express February 27, 2014)

I am deeply dismayed that the Ambassador is applauding the government for “giving farmers the option to produce brinjal at less cost both financially and to the environment”. The reality is just the opposite. Our farmers need support to carry out their farming practices with science and technology that conforms to their environment, ecology, culture and the experiential knowledge. Potentially dangerous technologies if introduced violating the international norms of ‘precautionary principle’ completely disregarding biodiversity and health risk will project a very negative image of USA. Environmentalists are already campaigning against the industrial countries of biopiracy, of stealing their germplasm. The Bt brinjal is another example of biopiracy of nine local variety brinjals, achieved through the claim of proprietary technology belonging to Monsanto and Mahyco.

In Bangladesh, Bt. Brinjal experience is a scandalous story of coercion, misuse of political power, misinformation, false claims and denial of a proper scientific process and procedure to resolve debates within the proper practice of science. There are very serious issues to be ignored.

We appreciate Mr. Mozena claiming to be a farmer, but sad to see that in reality he is championing the interests of transnational agro-industries.

Wish to see you, Mr. Ambassador as respecting the farmers in Bangladesh and not the interests of the transnational corporations!

Farida Akhter, an organizer of Nayakrishi Andolon. e-mail: faridaakhter.ubinig@gmail.com


FROM IOWA TO BANGLADESH, TECHNOOGY SHAPING THE FUTURE OF AGRICULTURE

Dan Mozena

I grew up on a dairy farm in Iowa and spent my formative years milking cows, slopping hogs and helping Dad grow and harvest our maize, oats and alfalfa crops. Although Dad had little formal education, he was a progressive farmer, always open to new ideas on how to farm better. Thanks to Dad, I am a farmer-at-heart, and, like him, I am always eager to learn about new ideas for feeding the world, safely.

So when I learned that Bangladesh had approved genetically engineered eggplant—better known as Bt brinjal—I was intrigued. I had learned from firsthand experience in America that biotechnology could protect farmers, consumers and the environment by dramatically reducing the use of harmful chemicals.

Whenever I am back in Iowa, I bicycle to the farm where I was born and raised. About a decade ago, on one of those bicycle trips, I noticed something different. An avid bird watcher, I was surprised to see birds along the road that I had never seen there before.

I stopped my ride and chatted with an old neighbor Cy Leahy, and told him about the birds. Cy laughed and said not only had birds come back, but wild turkeys, deer, bald eagles, beavers, coyotes and other animals, none of which I had ever seen on our farm in the 18 years I lived there.

Curious about this resurgence of wildlife, I called our county agricultural extension agent, and he told me that farmers’ use of genetically engineered soybeans had slashed the use of pesticides on that crop from six to seven sprays a season to zero. As a result, the agent explained, within only a few years wildlife that had disappeared many decades earlier had returned in ever growing numbers.

I was amazed how the introduction of this new soybean seed could have such a positive impact on both cutting the cost of production (by eliminating the use of pesticides and the fuel needed to apply the pesticide) and enhancing the environment … all dramatic changes that I had seen with my own eyes.

The Bangladesh Angle

Having seen the positive impact of genetically engineered crops in Iowa, I was eager to learn more about Bangladesh’s experience with such crops, specifically Bt brinjal. So, a couple of weeks ago I went to Pabna District to talk with a farmer who was among the twenty selected last growing season to try the new genetically engineered brinjal

and what a story he had! He told me (and government agricultural agents confirmed) that farmers using conventional brinjal often spray their crop with a powerful pesticide 80-100 times (!) a season in an often futile effort to control the fruit-and-shoot borer that lives inside the fruit. As explained to me, some of this pesticide actually penetrates into the meat of the fruit itself, which means that we the consumers actually end up eating it. However, the farmer who used Bt brinjal did not spray his crop even once for the borer, as he had no infestation from that pest, which can destroy as much as 70% of a conventional brinjal crop. He did use a topical pesticide two or three times to control leaf hoppers. He was pleased with his crop, which was much larger as he did not lose anything to the borer and which he produced at lower cost by slashing the cost of pesticides. He said he and his family ate and enjoyed his brinjal crop. Of course, the benefit to both the environment and consumer in avoiding the pesticides is incalculable. I was so impressed.

I share these vignettes to encourage further exploration and development of genetically engineered seeds to enable a growing world to produce more food, while using less land, less water, less fertilizer and fewer pesticides. I believe that we need to combine the best proven agricultural practices with the best science and technology. Biotechnology is a tool that can reduce poverty and hunger by enabling farmers to grow crops that are resistant to insects, drought and disease.

I applaud the Government of Bangladesh in giving farmers the option to produce brinjal at less cost both financially and to the environment. I am pleased that Bangladeshi farmers now have an option to use biotechnology to boost agriculture productivity while providing consumers safer food products … helping the environment by reducing the run off of chemicals into streams, ponds and rivers, which poison fish, shrimp and other animals such as birds, bees, and livestock.

That is what Cy Leahy saw happen in Iowa a decade ago; that is what could happen in Bangladesh.

The writer is U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh*

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The article was written when Mr. Dan Mozena was the US Ambassador to Bangladesh. The article was published in Dhaka Courier  on 18th December 2014.


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