by Farida Akhter & Farhad Mazhar
The BBC Bangla news on 18 January, 2005 (as well
as found in BBC website titled “Bangladesh 'endorses' GM
rice”) reported on the possible allowing of research of
GM rice in the country. This news came as a shock to the environmental
activists who have been resisting the introduction of GMOs. It
was also a puzzle to those who have been debating on the GMO issues
on scientific grounds including bio-safety and other regulatory
matters. Bangladesh does not have the capacity to contain GMOs
and legal and regulatory regimes are absent to deal with transgenic
products. The decision of the Ministry of Agriculture amounts
to knowingly polluting biodiversity of Bangladesh, particularly
agrobiodiversity and opening the door for the destruction of biodiversity-based
farming systems of Bangladesh. Biodiversity-based production system
of Bangladesh is unique both historically and scientifically and
recent interests in the private sectors to market ecologically
produced safe food clearly demonstrates tremendous economic potential
for organic and ecological product both domestically and internationally.
In that case introduction of GMO rice is a clear economic threat
to this nascent sector as well. Geographically Bangladesh belongs
to the origin of diversity areas of the world. Government failed
to clarify the reasons to take such decision of endorsing GMOs
that poses threat to human health, environment and to the farming
communities. The genetically engineered rice variety that is going
to be introduced has for long been criticised by scientists, farmers
and activist as a gimmick and have no agronomic value.
According to the BBC report the Ministry of Agriculture of government
of Bangladesh says it hopes to release a type of genetically modified
rice to farmers if on-going research is successful. The Authorities
claim “the new rice may help feed Bangladesh's growing population
as well as tackle certain common ailments associated with malnutrition”.
The chief of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, Dr Mahidul
Haque, said a locally developed rice variety known as BRRI 29
has been transformed into a genetically modified rice.
He said beta carotene - which the body develops into Vitamin
A - had been taken from daffodils and added to the rice. This
made it useful in fighting conditions such as poor sight and blindness.
The Agriculture Minister Mr. M K Anwar says the government does
not object to GM technology, which may prove beneficial. Research
into the crop is being carried out at the Bangladesh Rice Research
Institute. However, he acknowledged that GM foods are controversial
worldwide, but his government will not take any stand against
"We'll introduce GM rice in Bangladesh after proper testing
and going through the national and international rules and regulations,"
he told the BBC. Officials expect the research on GM rice to be
completed shortly, but no time-frame has been given.
The BBC also reported that the environmentalists and health experts
have already warned the government against introducing any GM
rice and food in Bangladesh without testing. They fear that any
GM food without proper testing could create severe health problems
in a poor country like Bangladesh.
In Bangladesh the introduction of GM rice has couple of strategic
corporate interest. First is to ensure the entry of GMOs in the
rice cultures of Asia. Secondly, it aims to enhance the profile
of GMO in general in the face of the protests in the North, by
introducing it in a country well known for its wealth in biodiversity.
Thirdly, it is also integral part of the overall strategy of destroying
the existing seed systems of sharing and exchange of seed by the
farming communities. The patents that are associated with the
proposed seed variety will create condition for the market of
patented rice varieties. All these moves are inimical to the farming
communities that constitutes majority of the Bangladeshi people.
The move is also clearly against the farming communities of Bangladesh
who demonstrated, without any government support that biodiversity-based
ecological agriculture is more productive, and there are enough
local varieties that could produce more than 6 tons per hectare,
if eco-systemic approach is undertaken and historical knowledge
of farmers of this Gangetic delta is taken into account to manage
the farming systems. Researchers, who favour modern varieties
with genuine concerns for increased food production, also did
find in the comparative studies that ecological farming is at
least equal in productivity compared to modern varieties, therefore
making no sense in taking environmental and ecological risks where
other methods of cultivation is already proved successful, and
widely accepted in any part of Bangladesh. There are many villages
and unions known as ecological villages in Bangladesh.
Inspired by their own research, farmers of Nayakrishi Andolon,
the New Agricultural Movement, cultivated 1561 varieties of rice
in the past Aman season in the year 2004. They altogether cultivated
nearly 2000 varieties of rice and many of those varieties, particularly
red and semi-red rice is very rich in nutrition, in addition to
the higher return of productivity. Despite the documentation available
and the research data placed in the national seminars in presence
of the scientists and policy makers, government did not undertake
any collaborative research with the ecological farmers to disseminate
the techniques of enhanced rice production by the ecological farmers,
instead, introducing GMO rice. It is important to note that except
Nayakrishi Andolon, there is no systematic study on the productivity
of the local varieties, and the farmer’s seed systems. The
decision of the government shows that it lacks scientific objectivity
and intentionally remaining blind to the available research and
analysis. It is clearly manipulated by the Corporations eager
to introduce GMOs in Bangladesh. There is absolutely no need of
introducing a genetically modified rice seed which will only pollute
the environment and will not solve the problem of food availability.
We know through various international and regional networks such
as Institute of Science in Society (ISIS), Grain, Third World
Network, SANFEC that rice has become a very attractive business
interest for the corporations. According to ISIS, several major
transnational seed corporations – Aventis, Dupont, Monsanto,
Syngenta – now have rice programmes. Rice is self-pollinated,
making hybrid rice seed production costly and difficult, and nearly
all rice in Asia is still grown with farmer-saved seed. The seed
industry believes that the combination of genetic engineering
and patents can overcome this hurdle. "Through patents and
contractual agreements, seed companies will seek to prohibit farmers
from sharing or saving seed, control what pesticides are used
and even assert ownership rights over the harvest."
Golden rice is produced by splicing three foreign genes –
two from the daffodil and one from a bacterium – into japonica
rice, a variety adapted for temperate climates. The developers
anticipate at least five more years will be required to breed
the Vitamin A trait into rice varieties adapted to local climates
in developing countries. The experts believe that such anticipation
is overly optimistic, given the unprecedented difficulties presented
by engineering a complex three-gene trait (all current GE crops
are spliced with single-gene constructs), and the need for safety
and environmental testing before field introduction.
The main argument that Golden Rice is needed in a country like
Bangladesh is totally baseless. Greenpeace calculated, based on
the product developers’ own figures that an adult would
have to eat at least 12 times the normal intake of 300 g rice
to get the daily recommended amount of pro-vitamin A. An adult
would have to eat at least 3.7 kg dry weight of rice, i.e. around
9 kg of cooked rice, to satisfy their daily need of vitamin A
from Golden rice. In other words, a normal daily intake of 300
g of rice would at best provide 8% of the vitamin A needed daily.
A breast feeding woman would have to eat at least 6.3 kg in dry
weight, converting to nearly 18 kg of cooked rice per day. Whereas,
a poor family in a village cooks only 2 kg of rice for four persons
for two/three meals a day. Why should they spend extra money to
cook nearly 4 kg of golden rice per person? Also people do not
eat rice only, they have to eat vegetables, fish etc. with rice.
Isn’t it an expensive proposition for the Bangladeshi poors?
Therefore it is clear that, the Ministry of Agriculture is not
helping the poor but only helping the multinational companies.
Already the governments since sixties of the last century have
caused enormous loss of diverse crops that the Bangladeshi people
grew in the country. Through green revolution monoculture crops
of rice and wheat were introduced resulting in decrease in pulses,
oil seeds, and through the use of pesticides there was a steep
decline in fish production. So the nutritional deficiencies were
not caused by lack of necessary food crops, but because of introduction
of technologies in monoculture rice production. The decline in
soil fertility has also resulted in the decline in productivity
with increasing costs of production. After the failure of high
yielding variety rice to meet the problem of hunger, the government
introduced Hybrid rice in the late eighties and nineties with
the promises of higher yields. Even those were not successful.
On the other hand, the increased use of pesticides, herbicides
and chemical fertilisers caused further deterioration of environment,
particularly loss of many green, leafy vegetables that had been
important sources of Vitamin A. It is a well recognised fact in
Bangladesh even documented by national institutes of nutrition
that many leafy green known as saks, vegetables and fruits can
supplement vitamin A in food. The Institute of Food and Nutrition
in Bangladesh listed leafy greens, vegetables and fruits with
different nutrients, such as iron, sugar, calcium, carotene, vit.
B1, vit-B2, vit. –C etc. It showed that rice husked in mills
do not contain carotene, but rice husked in wooden dheki contains
carotene. The carotene content of various widely available saks
are very high. These are Katanotey(Amaranthus spinosus), kochu
sak (Calocasia Arum), sajna pata (Moringa Obifera), pudina pata
(Menthea piperita), khesari sak, kolmi sak (Ipomoea aquatica),
sweet potato leaves (Ipomoea batatas), thankuni( Hydrocotyle Asiatica)
palong (spinach), raddish leaves and many others. Most of these
greens are not even cultivated. They grow as partners to mixed
cultivated crops or as uncultivated plants on the road side, open
fields etc. There are many vegetables which contain carotene.
They are carrot, sweet gourd, red bean, banana shoot, green chili,
bitter gourd, okra, egg plant, amaranthus, union buds, pulse etc.
The fruits are ripe mango, ripe papaya, pineapple, ripe fig, yellow
melons etc. With such wide variety of possibilities for vitamin
A sources, why does Bangladesh need Golden rice to prevent and
cure night blindness?
There is a worldwide resistance against field testing of GM crops
because GM pollen and seeds contaminate normal crops. For example,
in 2000, nearly 25,000 acres of European rapeseed (canola) and
maize were discovered to be contaminated with unapproved GM varieties.
There are many other examples of contaminations. In terms of health,
according to Plant Journal 27(6) in the article on Assessment
the food safety issues related to genetically modified crops,
“ all GM crops are subject to potentially hazardous unintended
effects that are impossible to predict and extremely difficult
to test for. However, according to the USDA database of GM crop
field trials, some of these crops are intended to produce substances
that raise human health concerns such as allergenicity, nutritional
deficits etc. Tomatoes, potatoes, rice, grapes, wheat and barley
have been engineered to produce anti-fungal compounds from the
class of pathogenesis-related (PR) proteins, which is “widely
regarded as a rich source of allergens.” An expert in this
field warns that such GM plants could cause food allergies. Corn
and soybeans are being genetically manipulated for radical alterations
in oil, protein and starch content for use as animal feed in factory-farm
The farmers in Bangladesh have seen the effects of Green Revolution
in which HYV seeds were used along with chemical fertilizers,
pesticides, ground water for irrigation, they are experiencing
the harmful effects of hybrid seeds. The new technologies have
always promised them with more productivity, but those promises
were never fulfilled. The scientists never felt the responsibility
to admit publicly that they were wrong in proposing those technologies.
Although they do admit in scientific papers. By believing in the
false promises the farmers have already lost thousands of varieties
rice, they needed as staple food, for specific nutritional needs,
cultural, religious, spiritual needs. So new promises would not
work, particularly the technologies which are already controversial,
and which have the potential effects on farmers seed saving. Farmers
are not blind, they cannot be fooled with promises of curing or
preventing night blindness with the so called Vit. A rice or the
Golden Rice. If the rice which is supposed to cure a disease and
at the same time is responsible for other health hazards, environmental
pollution and loss of control over seeds by farmers, is itself
contradictory and therefore cannot be acceptable.
 See Grains of delusion: Golden rice seen from the ground,
a GRAIN Briefing, by Biothai (Thailand), CEDAC (Cambodia), DRCSC
(India), GRAIN, MASIPAG (Philippines), PAN-Indonesia and UBINIG
(Bangladesh) http://www.grain.org/briefings/?id=18 ; “Mirage”
of GM’s Golden promise, by Alex Kirby, BBC News Online environment
correspondent, February 2004. http://www.biotech-info.net/mirage_of_promise.html;
"Genetically Engineered 'Golden Rice' is Fool's Gold"
Greenpeace Statement, February 9, 2001
 Golam Rasul and Gopal B. Thapa, Asian Institute of Technology,
Thailand; Sustainability Analysis of Ecological and Conventional
Agricultural Systems in Bangladesh; World Development Vol.31.
No. 10 pp1721-1741.2003
 see “Rice War” http://www.i-sis.org.uk/