Propaganda over facts? BBC Panorama and Bt brinjal

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The BBC’s claim of 90% success for Bt brinjal in Bangladesh has been challenged by a journalist. Claire Robinson reports

BBC Panorama’s programme, “GM Food: Cultivating Fear”, has come under attack from a Bangladeshi journalist for falsely portraying Bt brinjal (eggplant/aubergine) cultivation in Bangladesh as a success. The programme, which aired on 8 June, featured pro-GMO campaigner Mark Lynas visiting a Bt insecticidal brinjal field and enthusing about the performance of the crop, which was claimed to reduce insecticide sprays and help farmers avoid the effects of pesticide poisoning.

Faisal Rahman, staff correspondent for the United News of Bangladesh (UNB), contacted GMWatch after watching the programme, which he felt “denied the reality of losses the farmers of Bangladesh incurred by cultivating Bt brinjal”. Out of concern for the farmers, Rahman wanted to set the record straight. His evidence, together with subsequent investigations by GMWatch, casts serious doubt on the credibility of the BBC Panorama programme.

Faisal Rahman is the author of a report for UNB on the second year of Bt brinjal cultivation in Bangladesh, titled “Bt brinjal turns out to be ‘upset case’ for famers”. The report, published in March this year, was based on field visits and telephone interviews with farmers growing Bt brinjal. The report concluded, “The cultivation of genetically engineered Bt brinjal in the country’s several districts has cost the farmers their fortunes again this year as the plants have either died out prematurely or fruited very insignificantly compared to the locally available varieties.”

Faisal Rahman’s findings

As part of his research for the story, Faisal Rahman interviewed 40 farmers out of a total of 108 growing Bt brinjal this year. He obtained the list of farmers growing Bt brinjal from the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), which is supervising the Bt brinjal project, and had no prior information about the farmers’ experiences with the crop. He visited 12 fields himself and talked to the other farmers over the phone. According to his research, 32 out of the 40 farmers found serious problems with Bt brinjal. For example, farmers Mohammad Haminur Rahman and Mohammad Mobarak Hossain of Sherpur Sadar upazila (sub-district) said they harvested 8-10 maunds (1 maund is around 80 lb) of Bt brinjal three months after the planting, less than half the amount that could be harvested from a local brinjal field of the same size in the same time scale. Ramzan Ali of Jhikargachha upazila in Jessore said most of the Bt brinjal plants in his field had died.

Faisal Rahman says he did not publish the 32 out of 40 figure because he suspected that the real number of farmers facing loss could have been far higher.

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