Bangladeshi scientists have readied the country's first genetically modified (GM) crop -- brinjal infused with pest-resistant genes -- that will see a drastic fall in the use of harmful pesticides in the crop.
Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (Bari) will apply to the National Technical Committee for Crop Biotechnology on Sunday for its release next month, said officials concerned.
Once cleared, the GM crop will go through a bio-safety regulatory process and public consultation before its release, they said.
Of all vegetables produced in the country, brinjal tops the list in terms of pesticide use.
Fruit and shoot borer (FSB), considered the most devastating pest in South and Southeast Asia, ravages brinjal fields and can cause loss of the crop by as much as 70 percent unless a heavy dose of pesticide is used.
Farmers are found to apply pesticides of up to 50 times in a cropping season of brinjal against a recommended dose of 25, making the vegetable highly toxic.
Once the crop is released, Bangladesh will join a group of 28 countries that grow GM crops. Though it will be the country's first home-grown GM crop, consumers in Bangladesh have long been exposed to GM food through consumption of imported GM soybean oil.
GM c rops are derived from tradi tional plant varieties by altering their genetic make-up in laboratories for faster growth, resistance to pests, production of extra nutrients, or any other beneficial purpose. This is usually done by adding one or more genes to a plant's genome using genetic engineering techniques.
Dr Md Rafiqul Islam Mondal, director general of Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (Bari), told The Daily Star that Bari scientists had successfully engineered brinjal, one of the country's most consumed vegetables, by inserting a crystal protein gene (Cry1Ac) taken from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, known as Bt, back in 2005.
It took seven years to complete greenhouse trials and open-field trials of Bt Brinjal in various agro-ecological zones in the country, and now it is ready for release to farmers, said Dr Mondal.
Bt gene insertion in brinjal makes it resistant to fruit and shoot borer that causes 50 to 70 percent loss of brinjal yield a year in the two regions.
Though brinjal is a staple in vegetarian diets throughout South Asia, and one of the cheapest vegetables to procure by resource-poor communities in Bangladesh, a large percentage of the crop does not make it to the market because of FSB infestation.
A major factor behind Bt Brinjal's development was to help farmers save money they spend on pesticides for curbing FSB infestation.
Moreover, unrestrained spraying of chemical pesticides adversely affects the health of farmers and workers. Pesticide residues from a concentrated use tend to remain for a longer period in vegetables, and ultimately affect the health of consumers.
In Bangladesh, brinjal acreage is around 50,000 hectares, which is one fourth of the total acreage of all vegetables. Annual brinjal output is estimated at about 3.5 lakh tonnes.
Dr Al Amin, who heads the Bari Biotechnology Division, told this correspondent that with technical and financial supports from Cornell University in the USA and USAID, two Bari scientists went to India in 2005.
Using lab facilities of leading Indian seed company Mahyco, they infused Bt gene into nine brinjal cultivars of Bangladesh. Mahyco has received the application rights of the Bt cry1Ac gene technology from US company Monsanto.
He said the national bio-safety committee approved the contained field trial of Bt Brinjal in 2007-08.
“Later, we carried out open field trials in Jamalpur, Ishwardi, Hathazari, Joydevpur and other agro-ecological zones for local adaptability of the crop over the last few years."
In all the trials, they found Bt Brinjal effective in fighting FSB and farmers no longer required to spray insecticides, he said.
Dr Wais Kabir, executive chairman of Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (Barc), said, "Genetic modification is an opportunity and we need to tap its benefit. Agronomically, Bt Brinjal is found to be good."
But a number of green groups and anti-GM activists have serious reservations about releasing GM crops in Bangladesh.
Farida Akhter, executive director of UBINIG, a non-governmental organisation, is one of them.
She demands the government should share the trial findings before releasing Bt Brinjal.
Farida fears poor brinjal farmers would be forced to buy Bt Brinjal seeds from multinational companies every year.
However, Dr Al Amin said farmers would be able to collect and use the seeds of Bt Brinjal like other varieties of brinjal. "It is no different in this case and there is no question of buying seeds from any multinational company."
Allaying fears about GM crops, Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury said, "We will do everything which is in the best interest of the country. Bt Brinjal will go through the entire bio-safety regulatory process before its release."
"Don't they [those who are vocal against the GM technology] see the damage caused by overuse of pesticides in brinjals," asked the minister.
"We faced such criticism during the introduction of hybrid technology in the country and we will face the same this time too," she said.
Dr Wais Kabir said there was scope for public consultation before the approval of the GM crop for commercial release.
Haseena Khan, professor at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Dhaka University, welcomed the country's advancement in frontier science in agriculture.
"We must also give emphasis on preserving our traditional crop verities and rich biodiversity," said Haseena, who is now at the South Asian University in New Delhi on sabbatical leave.
A total of 28 countries grow GM crops on 170 million hectares of land -- with the US and Brazil on the forefront, according to a 2012 report by International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).
Of the countries that planted biotech crops last year, 20 were developing and eight were industrialised countries. Sudan and Cuba planted biotech crops for the first time in 2012.
A 100-fold increase in acreage from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 170 million hectares in 2012 makes GM crops the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture, says ISAAA, a non-profit international network that operates from New York, Kenya and the Philippines.
In South Asia, India, Pakistan and Myanmar grow only one GM crop -- cotton. If Bt brinjal is approved for release, Bangladesh will be the first in the region to grow a GM food crop.
The release of Bt Brinjal was stalled in India amid outcry by green groups, while anti-GM activists damaged the GM crop in experimental areas in the Philippines.
But none of the two countries slapped any ban on Bt Brinjal. India imposed a temporary moratorium on Bt Brinjal's release while research on the GM crop reached an advanced stage in the Philippines.