On 10th February, 2010 the State Minister for Science Yeafesh Osman tabled the “National Institute of Biotechnology Bill-2010” in the National Parliament in Bangladesh. (http://bdnews24.com/details.php?id=153348&cid=2). The National Institute of Biotechnology is going to be an authority to set standards for highly controversial genetically modified (GM) foods and crops in Bangladesh. Four other bills seeking to enact laws for growth and development of hi-tech based industries in a “planned way and innovation of sustainable and environment-friendly technologies in agriculture, environment, medicine and industries” as described by the state minister were sent to the parliamentary standing committee on science and ICT ministry for scrutiny and to submit reports. The parliamentary body has only 21 days to finalise its recommendations on the five bills.
The rationale of the bill on biotechnology, according to the state minister, is to set up a national institute of biotechnology to ensure Bangladesh’s socio-economic development through usage of biotechnology. The proposed national institute will be run by an 18-member board of directors led by the science and ICT secretary. That is, it will be actually run by the bureaucrats and given the reality of Bangladesh, it implies absence of public participation in decision-making process.
Potential negative impact of the introduction of the GM food crops in agriculture is of serious concern in Bangladesh, more so, because the country is one of the sites of origin of global biodiversity. The stake for biodiversity and the livelihood of millions of farmers is enormous. If the threat of biological pollution is added to already threatened environment, ecology and biodiversity caused by chemical and pesticide based agriculture with extraction of groundwater, introduction of genetically modified crop could be disastrous. GMOs are not the solution to lack of organic matter in the soil and the stagnant productivity of the so called ‘modern’ or HYV varities, reported in studies conducted by mainstream institutions including the World Bank. Bangladesh requires a reversal of policies to safeguard whatever is left: the immense potential of the confluence of water, soil, greenery, traditional knowledge and generational practices of farming communities.
A democratically elected government tabling such a controversial bill is unexpected, particularly in the absence of the opposition. It is all the more alarming to see that there was no consultation held outside the parliament with the relevant environmental groups and, most importantly, even with any representative from farming communities. Having two-thirds majority in the parliament, the grand alliance government will have no difficulty in passing the bill but only prove that a brute majority in parliament may prove disastrous for a country; Bangladesh is already vulnerable to environmental and ecological disasters, and threats of climate change is already looming. The democratic attitude of the government is conspicuously lacking here, particularly towards the farmers. It is not known whether the parliamentary standing committee will hold any public consultation within the 21 days to finalise its recommendations. So far, no such effort has been visible.
The introduction of the bill in Bangladesh parliament coincided with the scheduled announcement in India of the Bt Brinjal verdict on Feb 10. The Indian government had declared its verdict a day before following severe opposition from states, farmers and environmental groups, and halted its plans to allow commercial cultivation of the first genetically modified eggplant or Bt Brinjal. The Indian environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, announced imposition of the “moratorium on the release” of Bt Brinjal till the time when “independent scientific studies establish, to the satisfaction of both the public and professionals, the safety of the product from the point of view of its long-term impact on human health and environment.” Unfortunately, such consultations are not held in Bangladesh, yet a law is being enacted to enable GM crops to be grown in Bangladesh. This raises serious questions for environmentalists and those opposing the release of GM food and crops in Bangladesh as well as in India. Why did Bangladesh have to take this initiative at a time when India had decided on the moratorium? Is this merely a coincidence or a plan to help Bt Brinjal continue with its commercial release?
Concerns were also expressed in the Indian media that the ‘environment ministry’s moratorium on the commercial release of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) Brinjal in India is unlikely to keep the genetically modified crop out of Indian kitchens. “It may creep in via Bangladesh and Philippines,” according to A R Reddy, co-chair of Genetic Engineering Approval (now Appraisal) Committee (GEAC) that approved the vegetable for commercial use (Business Standard, Feb 14, 2010). According to A R Reddy, Bangladesh and the Philippines were in an advanced stage of releasing Bt Brinjal in their respective countries. Once that happened, it would be tough for the government to keep an eye on the movement of seeds. The tabling of the “National Institute of Biotechnology Bill-2010” in the parliament immediately after the moratorium in India proves this concern to be true. Gravely risking biological pollution and health of human beings and other animal life Bt Brinjal will be cultivated in Bangladesh in order to provide opportunity for GMO companies to make money against the interest of the farmers of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is a target country for Bt Brinjal under the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSP II) and the ‘Monsanto technology’ – a joint venture with Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) and its collaboration with the private seed company East West Seeds in Bangladesh. Mahyco is transferring the technology and basic breeding material of Bt Brinjal to two Indian public sector institutions (PSIs), the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore (TNAU) and the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad (UASD), though its ownership still rests with Mahyco. The Bt Brinjal contains a gene construct of ‘Cry 1 Ac’ from Monsanto, the American MNC, which has a 26 per cent stake in Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech (MMB). The PSIs will use the Mahyco material to backcross with their own brinjal varieties to incorporate the genetic event into them, imparting tolerance to the fruit and stem borers of brinjal that cause severe damage.
This partnership arrangement is extended to the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research, Varanasi, University of Philippines in Los Banos, a government research institute Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) and a private seed company, East West Seeds, Bangladesh. The ABSP II, funded by USAID and led by Cornell University, aims to provide substantial benefits from agricultural biotechnology to countries in East and West Africa, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The Bt Brinjal is actually a piracy of the local brinjals to be genetically modified for patenting by Monsanto-Mahyco partnership.
According to newspaper reports (Nayadiganta, 13 Feb, 2010) BARI has been conducting field trial of Bt Brinjal with an MOU with Mahyco since 2006. According to BARI sources as quoted by the report, it may take another 2 years for widespread cultivation by the farmers. It is at this very crucial time that the proposed biotechnology institute bill is being tabled in the parliament which will set standards and issue certificates for genetically modified foods and genetically modified organisms, according to sections 9 (e) of the bill. Biotechnology is often seen as beneficial to human beings, and in Bangladesh it is argued that biotechnology is a scientific advancement. But according to Greenpeace, “While scientific progress on molecular biology has a great potential to increase our understanding of nature and provide new medical tools, it should not be used as justification to turn the environment into a giant genetic experiment by commercial interests. The biodiversity and environmental integrity of the world’s food supply is too important to our survival to be put at risk.”
In India, the farmers’ groups and environmental activists welcomed the moratorium on Bt Brinjal announced by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh. Greenpeace campaigner Jai Krishna however warned that the environment minister “must reassure the nation that the moratorium will not lead to a backdoor entry of Bt Brinjal or the 41 other GM food crops which are in different stages of trial in the country. A strong message should be sent out making GM developers liable for any accidental or illegal releases”.
The Bangladesh government is a signatory of the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety, which is the first international agreement to regulate the transboundary movements of genetically engineered (GE) organisms. The Biosafety Protocol is a subsidiary agreement to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which was signed by over 150 governments at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The Protocol itself was agreed to in Montreal in January 2000 and came into force on September 11, 2003. Following the obligation of the protocol, the government formulated the Biosafety Guidelines for Bangladesh by the Ministry of Science and Technology in 2005 which was earlier formulated in 1999. Considering the obligation of the said protocol, the guidelines have been updated through an initiative of the Ministry of Environment and Forest. The ministry has also taken the National Policy on Biotechnology into consideration and recast various aspects of Risk Assessment and Risk Management in light of the Cartegena Protocol. The Biosafety Protocol is an agreement designed to regulate the international trade, handling and use of genetically engineered organisms that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, also taking into account risks to human health.
According to the Biosafety Guidelines of Bangladesh, GMO introduction must not interfere with the protection of genetic resources and biological diversity.
Bangladesh is among the few known as the country of origin for brinjals. There are many varieties of brinjals in the country and farmers are growing them in different agro-ecological zones. The introduction of Bt Brinjal will pose a threat to the genetic diversity of brinjals and allow monopoly control of genetic resources by multinational companies by destroying sovereign rights of farmers over seeds. This is not acceptable. We do not need Bt Brinjal, as we have many vareities of our own.