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OP-ED: The next step for Bt brinjal

  • Published at 07:45 pm April 1st, 2021

Making Bt eggplant technology sustainable and durable in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is in its seventh year of growing genetically modified eggplant (Bt brinjal). Starting with 20 farmers in the 2014-15 season, we have now over 60,000 farmers adopting the technology in the 2020-21 season. These are farmers who have obtained seeds from the formal sources. 

The number of farmers growing Bt eggplant is likely to be larger, as some farmers use seeds saved from the previous season. The farmers have benefited from the technology by getting higher yields and savings due to the reduced use of insecticides to control the eggplant fruit and shoot borer (EFSB), which can cause yield losses of 86% or more. 

Reduced use of insecticides has also provided health benefits to the farmers, consumers, and the environment. 

Bangladesh now should take strategic steps to sustain this growth and make the technology durable. As with any new technology, stewardship is of vital importance, and this is true for Bt eggplant. While stewardship begins with quality seed, other practices, including an insect resistance management (IRM) program, are equally vital for the long-term sustainability of Bt eggplant technology in Bangladesh. 

The four Bt eggplant varieties currently available to farmers cover a limited eggplant growing area and there are still large numbers of eggplant-growing farmers who do not have access to the technology. Additionally, not all of the released Bt eggplant varieties are tolerant to bacterial wilt which requires additional care to be taken by the farmer in the field. Hence, there is a need to introduce the Bt technology into higher yielding, agronomically superior, wilt tolerant, and widely adapted varieties to achieve broader adoption of Bt eggplant in Bangladesh. The availability of such varieties will further increase the demand and adoption of Bt eggplant and provide benefits to a larger number of farmers.

Farmer training and awareness on stewardship and field compliance is important for sustainable production of this valuable product in Bangladesh and needs to be continued. Development of resistance (a natural process) by EFSB to the current Bt eggplant varieties can pose a challenge in the future if not addressed now. One way to delay the development of resistance in the insect population is planting a “refuge” of non-Bt eggplant surrounding the Bt eggplant field. 

Studies have shown that EFSB will colonize these non-Bt plants and delay the development of resistance to Bt plants. Thus, it is important that proper field stewardship practices are followed and monitored to delay resistance. Presently, less than 10% of the eggplant growing area is under Bt eggplant cultivation, and there is considerable refuge available in the form of traditional, non-Bt eggplant fields. 

However, as adoption increases it will become increasingly important that farmers plant their own refuges. There is also a need to explore the potential use of new management practices such as “refuge in the bag” (ie a specific mix of Bt and non-Bt seeds in the same packet) technology to ensure farmer refuge compliance. An important component of IRM also includes development and utilization of baseline studies of susceptibility to Bt protein (Cry1Ac) and monitoring for any changes that might indicate emerging resistance in the insect population. 

A coordinated effort

Bt eggplant technology in Bangladesh is managed by the public sector -- where the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) is responsible for development of the technology and maintaining breeder seeds, the Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC) is responsible for large scale foundation seed production for distribution to farmers, and BARI and the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) carry out the extension and outreach activities.  

A coordinated effort (pre-season, in-season and post-season) is required between these three independent public agencies to enable high quality seeds to get to farmers. Such coordination between different agencies can be quite challenging. Encouraging the private sector to become involved in the development, production, and stewardship of GM products could be a solution to this issue.  

The private sector in Bangladesh could become a significant partner in the long-term development of Bt eggplant in Bangladesh and future GM crop innovations. The private sector is playing an increasingly important role in the Bangladesh Seed Industry, particularly in vegetable production. Good quality vegetable hybrids, and improved varieties developed by the private sector have helped farmers improve their yields, and the economics of vegetable cultivation. 

The private sector is considered to be efficient at developing and scaling quality seed. Once the Bt eggplant technology is made available to the private sector for commercial multiplication, the private sector may readily move forward to develop their own Bt varieties, including hybrids.

Strengthening the GM product-enabling environment will play a major role in sustaining not only the Bt technology but can also create a path for other GM crops that are already in the pipeline.  A science-based and predictable regulatory system is needed that can review applications in an efficient and faster pace. The adoption of an event-based registration in Bangladesh will further enable regulators to approve varieties suited for a particular region in a timely manner. 

Numerous studies have shown that the event-based approval process does not compromise efficacy or safety of the product. Effective communication strategies to enhance stewardship, scientific outreach, education, and policy advocacy will also help to safeguard Bt technology and its usefulness in Bangladesh.

By taking the right strategic steps, Bangladesh can make the Bt eggplant technology sustainable and durable. Such success will pave the way for other GM products in Bangladesh and will contribute to boost food security, enhance economic growth, and improve environmental quality.

Vijay Paranjape is Associate Director, Bt Eggplant Project, Bangladesh, Sathguru Management Consultants, India. Maricelis Acevedo, Director, Feed the Future South Asia Eggplant Improvement Partnership, Cornell University. This article was originally published by the Cornell Alliance for Science.

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