By Rajesh Kumar: Salem, India
Many people in India view our neighbors in Bangladesh with a measure of pity. They inhabit an overcrowded, less-developed country whose citizens earn less than half our per-capita income. Massive floods are a seasonal terror. Man-made woes also curse them, including the Savar building collapse in April. It killed more than 1,100 people in the deadliest structural failure in modern history.
In one important regard, however, Bangladesh is embracing technology and will jump ahead of India: It’s about to allow the planting of genetically modified brinjal, a staple vegetable that many people around the world call eggplant.
Growers in Bangladesh will become the envy of India’s farmers. We desperately want to access GM brinjal, but our government won’t let us have it – and now a committee of our Supreme Court has just called for an indefinite moratorium on field trials for new GM crops. Farmers in the Philippines have experienced similar frustrations.
So Bangladesh is embracing a bright future at a critical moment for global food security: Experts say we need to double food production by 2050, and the tool of biotechnology offers one of the most promising hopes for achieving this goal.
Bangladesh is now moving in the right direction. By becoming the first country to commercialize GM brinjal, it will discover the advantages of growing more food on less land—an excellent benefit in a country with incredible population density. Only tiny states such as Monaco, Singapore, and Vatican City pack more people per square mile into their borders. Bangladesh is the most crowded place on the planet.
This puts cropland at a premium, and means that Bangladeshi farmers must do everything they can to boost output as they try to feed more than 150 million people in the world’s 8th-most populated nation. Right now, Bangladesh harvests more than 380,000 tons of brinjal per year, according to the Bangladesh Agriculture Research Council. Soon, these farmers will grow even more of this vegetable, which is an ideal crop for developing countries because it’s good to eat and relatively inexpensive to produce.
I’ve grown non-GM brinjal on my farm for many years, so I know the challenges that it presents. The pests are terrible. Fruit and shoot borers can reduce a crop badly or destroy it entirely. Up to now, pesticides have offered the only way to cope. We spray every fifteen days on my farm. Some farmers actually overdo it, applying pesticide more frequently, due to ignorance or anxiety. This creates problems for workers in fields and families in kitchens.
Biotechnology can change all this. By using the same safe and proven technology that has transformed agriculture for so many around the world, brinjal can fend off the bugs on its own, leading to higher yields, healthier vegetables, and lower costs. This helps farmers and consumers alike.
The Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) has developed four kinds of GM brinjal, based on local varieties and with the assistance of scientists at Cornell University and USAID. After seven years of testing in greenhouses and fields, BARI has submitted its products for government approval, which should arrive soon.
When this happens, Bangladesh will become the 29th country to allow GM crops. Three countries in south Asia already grow GM cotton: India, Myanmar, and Pakistan. Bangladesh will be the first to permit a food crop to take advantage of the biotech tool.
India could have been first. Scientific committees appointed by our government had ruled GM brinjal safe and ready. Then our politicians reacted to the protests of environmental extremists and anti-biotech activists. In 2010, to the severe disappointment of farmers who understand this technology and consumers who hope for inexpensive food, it banned GM brinjal.
There are signs that New Delhi may be rethinking its harmful opposition, even as our Supreme Court pays too much attention to protestors. At a forum sponsored by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in July, President Pranab Mukherjee saluted biotechnology as a tool to improve India’s food production: "Development and introduction of genetically modified crops has the potential to revolutionize agriculture," he said.
I am hopeful these words will translate into actions. I and India’s farmers must ask the Indian government to follow Bangladesh’s lead. In the meantime, the actions of Bangladesh give us hope that biotechnology may continue to flourish—and that India soon will move forward as well.
Rajesh Kumar farms 120 acres in two regions of India, using irrigation to grow brinjal, sweet corn, baby corn, tomatoes and other vegetables. He sells fresh produce directly to consumers through kiosks at several locations and runs a food processing unit for canning of vegetables. Mr. Kumar is a member of the TATT Global Farmer Network and recipient of the 2012 TATT Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement award (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.