Three years after the release of Bt Brinjal, Bangladesh is going to get its second genetically modified (GM) crop -- a disease resistant potato -- as scientists have sought government approval for its commercial use.
Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute, which has developed the blight resistant (RB) potato, applied on December 29 for the commercial release of the crop, Bari Director General Md Rafiqul Islam Mondal told The Daily Star yesterday.
GM crops are the ones whose DNA has been modified, in most cases, by introducing a new trait to the plant, thereby, giving it extra vigour either to resist diseases or withstand stress conditions.
Once released, RB potato will be farmers' answer to late blight, one of the most devastating plant diseases caused by fungal attack. Farmers in Bangladesh spend up to Tk 100 crore a year in spraying 500 tonnes of fungicide to protect this major tuber crop from late blight.
With an annual output of nine million tonnes, Bangladesh is a potato exporting nation ranking 7th among the top potato-producing countries in the world.
Apart from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Uganda are also working on developing and releasing blight resistant GM potato.
According to the International Potato Center (CIP), potato is the third most important food crop in the world after rice and wheat in terms of human consumption. More than a billion people eat potato, and its worldwide production exceeds 300 million metric tonnes.
Late blight, responsible for the 19th century Irish potato famine that had led to one million deaths from starvation, still affects more than 3 million hectares of potato crops globally and causes economic losses estimated at $2.75 billion a year, according to the CIP, which is helping Uganda develop the GM potato.
Breeders involved in developing the RB potato since 2006 at Bari said the resistant gene was taken from wild potato varieties and was infused into a potato variety called Katahdin in the United States. They said it was crossed with Diamant and Cardinal -- two popular potato varieties in Bangladesh.
After years of lab tests, greenhouse and contained field trials across the country, Bari scientists found out that RB potato succeeded in resisting the late blight. Later, they approached the Ministry of Agriculture for regulatory approval, said Md Jahangir Hossain, director of Bari's Tuber Crops Research Centre (TCRC).
"Right in this season, I'm receiving many phone calls every day from Northern potato growers seeking advice for protecting their produces from blight attacks. Once approved, RB potato will bring them a big respite from the disease," said Hossain.
He said farmers now have to spray costly fungicides in their fields several times during a cropping season to save their potato from late blight.
Md Abu Kawochar, a scientific officer at the TCRC, had told this correspondent that the final regulatory trials conducted at six sites in the country during the last potato season had shown positive results.
Bari developed the late blight resistant potato in cooperation with the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSPII), a USAID-funded consortium of public and private sector institutions supporting scientists, regulators, extension workers, farmers and the general public in developing countries to make informed decisions about agricultural biotechnology.
Bari Director General Md Rafiqul Islam Mondal said once the Ministry of Agriculture would forward the approval application to the relevant biosafety regulatory committee, they would verify the matter. Once satisfied, the plea would be sent to the national biosafety body for approval.
He said the regulatory process would take a few more months to end.
RB potato would be the second commercially released GM food crop in South Asia after Bt Brinjal, which was also released by Bangladesh in 2013.
Empowered with a crystal protein gene (Cry1Ac) taken from soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, Bt Brinjal is resistant to Fruit and Shoot Borer (FSB), the deadliest brinjal pest.
After its release, Bari supplied Bt Brinjal plants to a limited number of farmers in 2014 and 2015. But since late 2016, the Department of Agriculture Extension (DAE) has been going for the crop's large scale production across the country.
“Success with Bt Brinjal has led Bangladesh to prioritise the field testing of a new late blight resistant potato [an important crop occupying 0.5 million hectares of land in Bangladesh] which could be approved as early as 2017,” stated the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), in its latest report titled “Global Status of Commercialized Biotech”.
ISAAA, a non-profit international organisation having three centres in New York (USA), Nairobi (Kenya), and Los Baños (the Philippines), keeps watch on production and expansion of biotech crops worldwide.
ISAAA recorded a 100-fold increase in global biotech acreage in just 20 years (from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 179.7 million hectares in 2015) making biotechnology the fastest adopted crop technology in recent times and reflecting farmer satisfaction with biotech crops.