Science Versus Baseless Claims
Mark Lynas is amusing. He visited the field of ‘Mohammed Rahman’, of Krishnopur, Bangladesh and claimed: “but improved seed genetics can make a contribution in all sorts of ways - It can increase disease resistance and drought tolerance, which are especially important as climate change continues to bite; and it can help tackle hidden malnutrition problems like vitamin A deficiency”. The claim is quite flowery like the title, ‘Why I got converted to GMO food’. Amusingly, the claim is based on insignificant observation in a single farmer’s field of Bt brinjal.
This is an illusive case study done by someone who neither understands egg plant (or brinjal) nor genetics but an apprentice salesman, sensational advertising: once Lynas was opposing GMOs and now he is not. Why? He visited a genetically modified brinjal field in Bangladesh, only one. The cartoon of brinjal showing germinating seedling from sliced fruit on the margin of the New York Times article is really a symbol of the hollowness of the total content of this report.
Eggplant in waterlogged land !
Mark Lynas mentioned, “Mr. Rahman, a smallholder farmer in KIsrishnapur, about 60 miles northwest of the capital, Dhaka, grows eggplant on his meager acre of waterlogged land.” Anybody who knows eggplant and its habit must be surprised that how brinjal/ eggplant can be grown on waterlogged land. Is it aquatic or semi-aquatic plant? No, it prefers well-drained land.
May be Mark Lynas does not know that eggplant (Solanum melongena) is grown on well-drained soil not only in Bangladesh but also across the globe. He might have been trying to introduce a novel attribute of Bt. brinjal for enticing farmers. But that is also not so clearly stated, rather a bunch of confusion has been created altogether.
There are mainly two marked seasons for cultivation of eggplant (or brinjal) in Bangladesh; rabi and kharif. There is no mention of season for cultivation of Bt brinjal in this report. Not even the date of sowing and the dates of harvest of Bt brinjal by Mr. Mohammad Rahman, but formed very basis of all questionable statements and indications.
The fact is that eggplant is grown in area of 74, 711 acres, which is about 15% of total vegetables area of Bangladesh. Its annual production is about 1,91,525 metric tons. At least 15 insect pests and one mite pest attack eggplant in Bangladesh. Among them, eggplant shoot and fruit borer, leaf hopper and epilachna beetle cause major damage. However, none of the insect pests build up populations equally in every season. The incidence and infestation of insect pests predominate in summer season.
Eggplant and the use of pesticide
The use of insecticides for insect control in crops was started in 1957. The adverse impact of the use of pesticides was very soon realized that prompted to shift out of pesticides in favor of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). The IPM activity was initiated in Bangladesh in 1981 through the FAO.
The key pests of major crops including eggplant and their IPM practices have been developed and used by the farmers. A combination of methods including the fallowing has been used in order for keeping pest population below economic level:
(1) Cultivation of tolerant eggplant varieties such as ISD 006, BL 114 and BL 095;
(2) Growing grafted seedling;
(3) Growing healthy seedlings raised in plots covered with cloth nets or grown in pest free area;
(4) Practicing adequate field sanitary measures particularly removing the fallen leaves, buds or debris;
(5) Clipping off and destroying the infested shoots and fruits once in a week;
(6)Uundertaking weekly field checking to sort out the presence of insect in the field;
(7) placing sex pheromone
(8) conservation of natural control agents (see IPM World Text Book, University of Minnesota)
Undermining the risks of Btbrinjal
Bt brinjal was created through Agrobacterium mediated transformation. It is known that the transgenic locus is not always stably inherited. Deletion of a transgenic locus and rearrangement of inserted gene can take place. Duplication or amplification of transgenes and epistatic interaction between different loci and/or allelic interaction within a single locus also exists. Furthermore, mitotic/ meiotic recombination is also observed for transgenic loci ( see Zhimin YIN, Wojcicch PLADER, Stefan MALEPSZY.2004 in Transgene inheritance in plants, J. Appl. Genet, 45(2),pp.127-144)
A slight reflection on genetic vulnerability of Bt brinjal as a transgenic plant is necessary to understand the context Mark Lynas is undermining by his personalized advertisement for Btbrinjal.
Mark Lynas has made so many inferences with little basis by visiting a single farmer’s Bt brinjal field without looking at any other farmers field of local varieties of brinjal and has concluded, “improved seed genetics can make a contribution in all sorts of ways: It can increase disease resistance and drought tolerance, which are especially important as climate change continues to bite; and it can help tackle hidden malnutritional problems like vitamin A deficiency.”
The fact is that plants are genetically modified, mainly to be disease and insect resistant, drought resistant or herbicide tolerant and not to ‘make a contribution in all sorts of ways’. Btbrinjal promoters genetically modified the plant to control fruit and shoot borer pests, and which has nothing to do with climate change or malnutrition. With such modifications come some environmental challenges and toxicity. GMOs may be toxic to non-target organisms including bees, butterflies, birds and other organisms. Biodiversity is also put at risk by GMOs. GMOS are generally grown in monoculture. Many indigenous seeds are, no longer grown. Consequently genetic diversity, resilience to climate change and environmental variations is also reduced (see Environmental impact of GMOs ).
Bt brinjal was grown by 20 farmers in different districts of Bangladesh in 2014. There was loss of crop in different scales in 19 other farmers’ fields. The farmers demanded compensation. This year there are reports of crop failure and the fact was covered by local media. (see ‘Btbrinjal turns out to be ‘upset’ case for farmers’.
Such uncritical and baseless claims is responsible for the loss of the farmers who cultivated in good faith. Mark Lynas and his types must take responsibility for doing harm to the people of Bangladesh. We should help farmers to get compensation for the lost crops instead of spreading confusion in favor of Bt brinjal, which in addition has become a potential environmental and health risks of millions across the globe.
This article is a response to: Sunday Review/opinion page of New York Times, 'How I got Converted to GMO Food' by Mark Lynas, April 24, 2015
Dr. M. A. Sobhan is Retired Chief Scientific Officer, Bangladesh Jute Research Institute.