BBC Panorama under attack for its false portrayal of GM aubergines in Bangladesh as a ‘success’

By GM Watch

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.

Some of the farmers told Rahman that BARI had strictly forbidden them to talk to journalists. In one case he felt that this influenced the story he was told. “I called a farmer in Jessore. He was in town but one of his brothers was looking after the Bt brinjal field. He said some plants in their field had died but his brother could tell me more. He gave me his brother’s number and I called him instantly. His brother said the Bt brinjal was performing well.”


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Call from BBC Panorama

On 16 April, a few weeks after his UNB report was published, Faisal Rahman was called by the BBC Panorama producer and researcher Joseph McAuley. McAuley introduced himself as a BBC journalist interested in investigating the debate on Bt brinjal’s performance at farmer level.

According to Rahman, McAuley asked for his help in visiting some of the Bt brinjal fields mentioned in the UNB report.

Rahman says, “I welcomed him, but with caution.” He hoped that a BBC investigation would cross-check and verify the claims he had made in his own reports, lending them the added credibility of a BBC investigation. Rahman was confident that a truly independent investigation would do just that.

However, Rahman’s note of caution arose from his concerns that McAuley’s independence might already be in jeopardy. “He said he visited some fields in two districts, Tangail and Kushtia. I asked him whether he visited the fields independently or whether there was someone else with him. He said he visited the fields with BARI officials. I asked him whether he thought the presence of BARI officials could produce an independent outlook on the reality.

“I asked this because I had Mark Lynas at the back of my mind, as he posed as independent journalist in 2013. He later produced an absurd piece on Youtube where he was shown interviewing farmers in presence of BARI officials.”

Rahman says the presence of officials during the interviews and filming could influence how the farmers behave: “The colonial legacy here means that officials enjoy a lot of fearful respect from the farmers.”

According to Rahman, McAuley admitted that he had no other contacts to reach the Bt brinjal fields and that was the reason he had visited them with BARI officials. Rahman agreed to send him the phone contacts of some Bt brinjal farmers he had mentioned in his UNB report. He also advised McAuley to visit the farmers on his own, without officials being present.

After Rahman had put the phone down, a thought hit him. “I sent McAuley a text message saying, ‘Can I ask you whether or not your current work on Bt brinjal cultivation is an initiative solely taken by BBC? Is there any other party involved?’

Rahman says, “I felt McAuley’s pride as a BBC journalist was affected by this question as he called me at once and asked me, ‘Do you want me to answer that?’

“I said yes, I wanted to know that. I explained that I was cautious even about helping someone from the BBC, because I had read a shoddy report on Bt brinjal in The Guardian last year. Besides raising false claims, The Guardian report quoted Lynas at length and made allegations against the professionalism of Bangladeshi journalists over their visits to Bt brinjal fields in the first season of cultivation, without giving them a chance to reply.

Rahman asked McAuley whether he knew Lynas: “He remained silent. After some discussion, he said he wanted my help ‘as a journalist to a journalist’. I assured him again I would give him the phone numbers of Bt brinjal farmers.

“After some time, he called me again and said something that I could not understand, maybe because he was travelling. After some failed attempts, his assistant, a fluent Bangla speaker, called me and told me what McAuley wanted to say was that I should not mention or publish anything of the conversation between me and him anywhere. I said that I did not feel bound to abide by that request as farmers in Bangladesh are in great danger, particularly from people from outside the country. Pardon me if I sound a bit xenophobic.”

Rahman gave McAuley the addresses of 11 farmers in three districts – Narsingdi, Comilla, and Manikganj – who cultivated Bt brinjal this season, as well as the phone numbers of some of the farmers. In addition, Rahman gave him the phone numbers of two farmers who cultivated the Bt brinjal last season.

When Rahman watched the Panorama episode, he was surprised to find that did not feature any of these farmers. Instead it featured Hafizur Rahman, a farmer from Tangail Sadar upazila, enthusing about the success of Bt brinjal and saying he didn’t have to spray insecticides to kill the fruit and shoot borer pest (though he still had to spray for other pests).

Rahman says, “I felt deceived.” It was then that he decided to make public the details of his email and telephone conversations with McAuley “for the greater common good – to know whether McAuley visited the farmers or had any conversations over the phone, and what he found. And second, the way Panorama featured Lynas raised doubts in my mind about McAuley’s intentions.”

Read more here at GM Watch….


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