Cultivating PR

December 2015

A BBC documentary aired on 8th June 2015, covered the initiative to introduce GM brinjal (aubergine) into Bangladesh.  Viewers were told that "After a false start last year, this season more than 90%of the GM trial plots have been successful".  The source of the '90%' claim for the 'Bt' insecticidal brinjal which flashed on the screen  was "Cornell University".

Also featured on the programme was pro-GM crusader, Mark Lynas [1], showcasing one brinjal farmer's GM crop which, it was claimed, reduced insecticide sprays and pesticide poisoning of farm-workers. Interestingly, two months earlier, Lynas had published an article in the New York Times about the same farmer.  In this it was claimed that Bt brinjal had nearly doubled productivity, that the crop had been sold with an insecticide-free label, and  that it would lift the farmer's family out of poverty.

A request to the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) for the data underlying the '90%' claim elicited the confirmation that "Performance of Bt brinjal during 2015 ... are quite good and satisfactory.  Farmers got a good yield and also a handsome profit by selling their product", plus some photographs of brinjal.

However, journalist for the United News of Bangladesh, Faisal Rahman, and GM Watch smelled a rat in the GM brinjal, and made a few enquiries.

Cornell University didn't have any data to support the '90%' success claim. It's role in the Bt brinjal initiative seems to have been through the 'Cornell Alliance for Science' which was formed with $5.6 million from the Gates Foundation to publicise the Bt brinjal project and to "depolarise the charged debate around agriculture biotechnology and GM crops.  Alliance for Science partners include the ISAAA* which is funded by biotech companies Monsanto, CropLife and Bayer.  Cornell has also funded Mark Lynas to promote GM internationally.

Suddenly, the BBC 'documentary' appears to be part of a great big PR stunt.

BARI's enthusiastic generalisations made it clear that no actual data were being collected on the GM brinjal and that no comparator non-GM crops were being observed.  The photographs tell nothing.  This is an ideal scenario to bury bad news.

And bad news there certainly was.

Follow-up investigations of about one third of the farmers trialling the GM brinjal indicated that 80% experienced serious problems.  Even the farmer showcased by Mark Lynas had "stopped taking care of his Bt brinjal field about one and a half to two months" before because the plants had been slowly dying out.  It's likely that the actual failures of the GM crops were greater because BARI had strictly forbidden farmers to talk to the media.  The BBC investigators were kept under close BARI supervision when they visited the GM brinjal fields.  Also, friends of farmers given Bt seed experienced huge, but un-noted, losses.

Even before the bad news emerged, BARI seems to have taken pre-emptive damage-limitation measures.

One sharp-eyed researcher noted that the brinjal 'cultivation' tag on the false start the year before
had been down-graded to more easily fudged 'trial' the second year.

In a nutshell, in an extraordinary lapse of journalistic, scientific and agronomic standards, the 'success' was announce without following the crops' progress for the complete growing season.  And the 'handsome profit' must have been conjecture.  The 'serious problems' encountered seem to have been a combination of disease (bacterial wilt), other insect pests (whitefly) and unmarketable fruit quality.  It was suggested that the 'success' referred to the absence (or near absence) of shoot and fruit borers which the Bt toxin was designed to protect against, even if the GM plants were so weakened in other ways as to make them a waste of space.

'Unmarketable' qualities of the GM brinjal included a faded colour, rough texture, heavy fruit for their size and rapid softening.  In a country full of brinjal connoisseurs used to spotting good, fresh fruit by its appearance and feel, it's questionable whether these GM ones will ever gain acceptance.  Several different varieties of Bt brinjal were trialled, but none were grown in parallel with their nearest non-GM relatives.  It isn't at all clear whether the substandard fruit were an unexpected side-effect of the genetic transformation (a total lack of equivalence) or whether scientists chose unacceptable varieties to insert the Bt gene into in the first place (a total lack of common-sense).

The GM brinjal is, of course, being touted as free from royalties, but environmental campaigners have no doubt the whole project is just part of an "ultimate goal" to commercialise patented GM brinjal in Bangladesh.

OUR COMMENT

The BBC programme was entitled "GM Food: Cultivating Fear".  Perhaps it should have been called "Bad journalism: Cultivating PR".

Indeed, using a respected academic institution and a globally recognised television documentary to showcase a GM crop before it has had time to fail in the field or fail in the market seems the ultimate, cynical GM PR stunt.

GM Watch has pointed out that "Bangladesh is the home of highly successful Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programmes to manage pests, including the fruit and shoot borer, in brinjal crops."  A report has found that brinjal IPM in India and Bangladesh has been about three times more profitable than Bt brinjal  is projected to be, and has directly improved the profitability of small-scale resource-poor farmers.

The wider question is whether Bt crops as a whole can ever provide effective pest control?  Check out BT CROPS - A DEAD-END STREET? - November 2015.

Background:

[1]  WHEN NON-NEWS IS BAD NEWS - April 2013

 *ISAAA is the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications

SOURCE

* Bt Brinjal cultivation 'may fall prey to insect attack', United News of Bangladesh, Dhaka, 11.10.15
* Clair Robinson, Propaganda over facts? BBC Panorama and Bt brinjal, GM Watch 28.07.15

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