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Dhaka Tribune

BARI: One small step for regulators, one giant leap for scientists

Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) wins the ‘Foodfluencer of the Year’ in Dubai in recognition of its efforts in applying agribiotechnology

Update : 22 Dec 2023, 09:24 AM

Over ten years ago, Bangladesh approved its first biotech-derived vegetable crop, Bt brinjal, which caused uproar, with many expressing concerns over its fallout on the environment and human health. People, not familiar with the benefits of agribiotechnology and often misled by disinformation spread by anti-science lobbies, even took it to the highest court of justice in a failed bid to halt the release of the four brinjal varieties rich with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), a soil bacterium. Bt houses the cry1-Ac gene, in this particular instance, helping brinjals withstand the menace of Fruit and Shoot Borer (FSB), otherwise credited for up to 80% of yield loss.

At the time, many of Bangladesh’s South Asian neighbours had already experienced their journey with genetically engineered cash crops—Bt cotton being the most prominent one—and consumers in all of these countries, Bangladesh included, already had the biotech-derived cooking oil—imported Bt soybean, but there was no example set yet in cultivating any homegrown gene-tweaked food crop. In that sense, Bangladesh had definitely ventured into a hitherto unchartered territory.

Fast forward ten years since that 2013 bet, and Bangladesh’s journey of applying modern agricultural science is a big success today, giving it an edge over climate-induced stresses and bringing home many international accolades, with last week’s announcement of Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) winning the “Foodfluencer of the Year” in Dubai being the latest one.

BARI, being one of the country’s pioneer multi-crop research institutions, has been the developer and promoter of four Bt brinjal varieties: BARI Bt Brinjal-1, BARI Bt Brinjal-2, BARI Bt Brinjal-3, and BARI Bt Brinjal-4. Now it’s also in the final stage of developing biotech-derived potatoes that would resist late-blight. Each year, thousands of farmers who grow the tuber crop on over one million acres of land in the country spend up to a fourth of their investments on fungicide sprays to fight late blight, a deadly fungal attack that damages 20% of the potato yield in Bangladesh.

While announcing BARI as the winner of “Foodfluencer of the Year” last week at “HungerCon” in Dubai, “Right To Protein” said: “Renowned for groundbreaking innovations such as Bt eggplants and late-blight resistance potatoes, BARI, under the strong leadership of Director General Dr Debasish Sarker and Director of Research Dr MA Yousuf Akhond, truly distinguishes itself in the field of agricultural excellence.”

"Right To Protein" is an awareness initiative to educate people about the importance of adequate protein consumption for better nutrition, health, and well-being, while HungerCon, a flagship initiative of the United States Soybean Export Council (USSEC), held in Dubai, recognizes and brings together visionaries, thought leaders, institutions, and individuals who are working towards nutrition awareness and food security. USSEC is funded by the US soybean checkoff, the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) matching funds, and industry.

This year’s other nominees were: Dr Fareeha Talha, CEO of Fartal Pharmaceuticals and Vice President of the World Poultry Science Association (WPSA), Pakistan; and Ram Kaundinya, Director General of the Federation of Seed Industries of India.

Agribiotechnology in Bangladesh comes of age

In the 10 years since its approval of four Bt brinjal varieties, Bangladesh’s science of agri-biotech has come a long way. In recent months, Bangladesh has approved two varieties of Bt cotton, and its scientists have prepared vitamin-A-enriched Golden Rice, now in the final stage of regulatory gate pass. Work on more Bt brinjal varieties with different traits, such as late-blight-resistant potatoes, iron- and zinc-rich rice, and high-salt-tolerant rice, is underway.

Scientists in Bangladesh are also trying their hands with cutting-edge gene editing technology. One of the gene editing tools, CRISPR-Cas9, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for its developers, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, in 2020. It has been well proven today that once risk factors are well taken care of, agribiotechnology is a science that’s here for good, and modern gene editing tools have brought enormous possibilities to unleash untapped potential in agriculture. Things have changed for the better in otherwise anti-GM territories of the world too, with Europe increasingly embracing the blessings of modern biotech science in agriculture. Bangladesh is also at the final stage of easing its regulatory instruments so that scientists trying their hands at gene editing tools do not have to cross the stringent biotech regulations they follow now in cases of gene-tweaked varietal developments.

2013 Bt brinjal decision: A watershed moment

As things are developing now, it further signifies the importance of Bangladesh’s making the right choice back in October 2013. One bold step helped its scientists and research stations get the right policy confirmation that they could engage them in agribiotechnology, thereby deriving crop varieties with higher yield potentials that are climate-smart and resistant to different pests and stress conditions. However, regulatory inertia and indecision, at times, put the country again on the back foot—the non-approval of Golden Rice for over five years is one classic example.

It is important to recall why the introduction of Bt brinjal was a watershed moment for Bangladesh in 2013. Brinjal has been the second most consumed vegetable in Bangladesh after potato. Being an important vegetable crop, brinjal production serves as the primary source of cash income for over 150,000 resource-poor farmers on 50,955 hectares of land and is consumed on a daily basis by the public. The fate and livelihoods of not only the farmers but also their families and children hinge upon the success of each harvesting season.

But thanks to the FSB infestation, farmers had to invest a significant part of their investment in vegetable farming in toxic chemical pesticides. Bt brinjal brought a big relief for them as it heavily cut down on their pesticide budget on one hand, helped increase profit on the other, and also came as a blessing for consumers who were earlier afraid of having brinjal with high toxic residues.

Over-application of pesticides along with chemical fertilizers makes soils acidic, thereby causing a long-term impact on farmlands’ productivity. Besides, chemicals in pesticides are known to sweep down from the soil, contaminate underground water reservoirs, or even wash off as irrigation runoff pollutes nearby water bodies.

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