Shymoly, Ruposree, Pangkaj and some other 2/3 farmers from Baitora village of Manikgonj cordially welcome us and shared their works with us without hesitation! They told us regarding their success in rice breeding, preparation of compost fertilizers and some other works associated with agriculture. Ruposree, an aged women farmer said. “I never use chemicals in agro lands as those chemicals kill the fertility of my land and cause environmental degradation. I have gained success in rice breeding and have already invented 3 rice varieties crossing BR rice with other other BR rice and with local ones which produce good yield compared to their parents!”. She went on saying, “The new invented varieties of mine are not susceptible to diseases and locally adaptable”. Pankaj, a graduated student, who practices agriculture and organizes farmers in an organization said, “Participating in various seminars and workshops of BARCIK, I learn lot of things about sustainable agriculture and importance of organization for fighting to establish farmer’s right. We all here are now organized and share our learning and experience with each other. We know and realize the negative impact of chemicals and importance of our own seeds”.

We, comprises senior scientist of Consumer Union of United States Dr. Michael Hansen and Rice Campaign Co-ordinator of PANAP, Malaysia G. Clare Westwood were really very impressed hearing from the farmers about their sustainable and environment friendly agro practices and observing some of their works! Mr. Hansen and Ms Westwood recently came to Bangladesh with the aim to share the negative impact of GE rice and other genetically modified crops on human health and environment and the importance of biodiversity based sustainable agriculture. However, visiting the village has inspired them and made them think that their works and campaigns have even reached in this very remote village of Bangladesh!. We could clearly see the zeal and interest of the visitors to stay with the farmers and hear their experiences and works for another few minutes but the sun just got set and there was a hurry to arrive in Manikgonj for preparing themselves for another session in the following day! During the departure from the village all the men and women farmers together say goodbye to us and ask us, particularly Mr. Hansen and Ms Westwood to continue their campaigns and work for the poor farmers, to help farmers fighting for their right and to free them from the chains of multinational companies who trade with their wisdom and tradition. It was quite unlikely for the visitors to be inspired by the farmers as they, themselves have been campaigning and motivating farmers across the world to adopt sustainable agriculture rather than practicing energy intensive and technology dependent agriculture!

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Dr. Michael Hansen and G. Clare Westwood have been campaigning against energy intensive agriculture from a long time and in some 18 countries! They have gained vast experiences on the particular subject. During the visit at Baitora village, Ms Westwood and Mr. Hansen inspired the farmers saying that the world population could easily be fed practicing biodiversity based sustainable agriculture! They said. “If you have your own seeds, you will not be dependent on others! Companies allure you to buy their ones but buying those seeds means posing you to danger”. They went on saying, “If you buy those seeds, you need to buy all inputs from them which boost their profit and on the contrary make you got out from agriculture” However, as part of their campaign, they recently organized seminars in Dhaka with University students and Maninkgonj with consumers and farmers to share the findings of their long year researches about the impact of energy intensive agriculture on human health, environment, agriculture and socio-economic condition of small and poor farmers with the cooperation of BARCIK, ULAB and Shishuk.

In the workshop held on 2 September in Manikgonj, Mr. Hansen and Ms Westwood presented 4 papers that mainly focus on Impact of GE foods and Golden rice. The papers include: Genetically Engineered Crops, BT Crops Promises and Performance, Golden rice and Feeding the world Sustainably. The first three papers were presented by Dr. Michael Hansen and the last one by G. Clare Westwood. Mr. Hansen presenting his research paper on impact GE crops on health, tried to illustrate some figures and statistics which tell the harm of GE crops. According to him, GE crops include: Agronomic Traits, HerbicideTolerance (HT), Insect Resistance (IR), Disease Resistance, HT and IR traits, Nutrition-related Traits (“bio-fortification”), Pharma Crops, Industrial Traits, and Bio-remediation etc. He also discussed about the dangerous impact of inserting external gene into certain crops without proper justification their impact of human health and biodiversity. He mentioned that these modified crops could decrease the immunity power of humans and pose human to dangerous diseases.
In the presentation on BT cotton, Mr Hansen mentioned that thousand of farmers from India were compelled to commit suicide due to being not profitable farming genetic BT cotton and being indebted taking loans to meet the demand of required external inputs for the crop. The farmers were assured that they would be benefited farming BT cottons but they found the reverse result after some years experiencing new disease, loss of land fertility, toxicity, stagnant yield for few years etc. Farmers from China also faced almost the same problems he mentioned. When they face such problems no one came to rescue them leading them to kill themselves he said. “But recently some provinces of India have come forward to ban the farming of BT crops which is a good thing” he said.

On the other hand, while discussing about the problems of Golden rice Mr. Hansen said, “In order to get the required Vitamin A from the rice one has to consume 10 KGs of golden rice daily which is illogical and sounds really odd. It is not necessary that we should take vitamin A from rice since there are lots of natural sources of this Vitamin”. He went on saying, “Carrots, Leafy vegetables, Sweet potato tuber (orange), Sweet potato leaves, Coriander leaves, Curry leaves, Amaranth leaves, Melon (cantaloupe), Mango, palm oil, Liver (goat, sheep) and Cod liver oil are the important sources of Vitamin A. Adopting sustainable agriculture, one can easily get those diverse crops and leafy vegetable to meet the vitamin A deficiency relieving themselves from consuming such GE crops that pose risk to health”.

However, the presentations of Mr. Hansen seem to be difficult for farmers due to some scientific terminologies yet the body language and non-verbal communication of the participants was very positive. They understand the topic, particularly when Mr. Hansen used instances to depict. Farmers practically have faced problems related with agriculture due to using chemicals and pesticides as well as external or Market seeds. The presentations of Mr. Hansen have strengthened their belief about the dangerous of GE crops and negative impacts of corporate agriculture on their entire livelihood system. On the other hand, NGOs’, civil society members and government officials particularly agriculture officials were very pleased having such sort of workshop. They, though, seem to be not totally against GE crops, corporate agriculture and chemicals believing that Bangladesh has to continue its production system using technologies to feed its 160 millions population but the answers of Ms Westwood and Mr Hansen during the question-answer session has somehow made them to think about alternative ways of production decreasing the dependency on chemicals and pesticides gradually.
On the other hand, while presenting paper titled “Feeding the world sustainably” Ms Westwood emphasized on growing agro crops in a sustainable manner skipping the use of chemicals and external seeds. In her presentation, she mentioned that hunger is the world’s number one health risk that kills more people every year than aids. She said, “Corporate agriculture could not ensure food security of global population though it was introduce to do so”. According to her presentation, today about 925 million people are hungry and undernourished and two third of them live in Asia. However, in order to snatch the attention of farmers and other occupational groups in the seminar, Ms Westwood showed some pictures of pesticide poisoning. She said, “Some 3/5 multinationals and corporation control the total agribusiness of the world. Agriculture is now turning to be business sector of these companies who earn billions of dollars as profit each year trading the seeds and other agro materials of poor and marginal farmers.” She added, “Due to using pesticides in their lands, farmers pose themselves to dangerous health risks including poisoning the soils of their lands where thousands of micro organisms live.” She went on saying, “In the South, an estimated 25 million agricultural workers are poisoned by pesticides each year. This is the consequence of using pesticides prescribed by modern agriculture and its actors, the multinational companies and corporations”.

Excerpting from the study of IAASTD in 2008, Ms Westwood mentioned that applying pesticides in the agro lands has resulted in the degradation of 1.9 bil ha of land, Abuse of fertilizers large dead zones, groundwater pollution and loss of biodiversity and 70% of freshwater is withdrawn globally due to irrigation, salinization. According to her, Green revolution has paved way for companies to trade in agriculture by promoting energy package which is also called corporate package. Thus today the top 3 seed companies (Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta) control nearly 40% of the seed market and 6 corporations control 72% of the global pesticide market. This thing has happened as green revolution prescribed using HYVs, fertilizers and pesticides for huge production opening path for the corporation to get into the agriculture sector for trading not for ensuring human wellbeing. As result of this, the community wisdom has been now replaced by ‘Science’ and food is treated as commodities today, she said.

Ms Westwood asked the participants if they have experienced such sort of toxicity and curtailed of rights in agriculture due to practicing corporate agriculture and their answer was ‘Yes’. Addressing the participants she said, “It is now up to you to decide. If you want to practice your indigenous knowledge based agriculture or the corporate ones. If you do your own way of farming, seeds would be in your hands, you need not to be dependent on companies for fertilizers and pesticides as 50 years back your ancestors and old fathers used this sort of farming and could easily ensured food security of their family including nourishing the health of environment and biodiversity conservation.” She went on saying, “Corporate agriculture has sidelined women from agriculture as women do not conserve seeds practicing this agriculture. So, to recognize women contribution in agriculture and to empower them, you need to practice biodiversity based agriculture that allows women conserving seeds and contributing in almost all sorts of agro production process”. She also said, “Women empowerment would be possible if they are free to decide what to farm, what to skip and what to conserve. Being self dependent will bring good output for agriculture and environment as well”.

During the open discussion farmer, agriculture officials and journalist ask few questions to the facilitators. A local journalist asked that since Bangladesh government is promoting corporate agriculture including some big NGOs how would be possible for farmers to avoid that and adopt biodiversity based agriculture? The question seemed to be very significant one. However, the answer of the facilitators was also significant leaving the farmers themselves to decide. Ms. Westwood said, “It is up to you. You need to justify which one is good. You need to decide which ones bring bring welfare to you and the environment. She added, “We have come here just to share our experiences and findings about the hazardous impact of pesticides and GE crops on human health and environment with you not to prescribe and impose you adopting sustainable agriculture”. District agriculture officer being doubtful about the effectiveness and strength of biodiversity based agriculture to ensure enough food for population asked that how Bangladesh could feed its increased population if it does not practice energy intensive agriculture for huge production. The answer of Mr. Hansen and Ms Westwood made us retuning back to Baitora village where farmers practice breeding to find varieties that produce huge yield with low inputs. Thus their answer was “You need to use our knowledge and try to find rice from locality. The farmers of Baitora village have succeeded in inventing 3 rice varieties crossing the local rice varieties.” They added, “To find solution of this problem you need to persuade the government to give importance on farmers knowledge and integrate their knowledge with science to find crops that do not only produce good yield but also ensure environment sustainability which corporate agriculture ignores. ”.

The topic though seems to be difficult for farmers including language barriers but we could see in the eyes of farmers and participants that they were happy to have such kind of workshop. BARCIK tried to minimize the language barrier involving its two staffs for translation. It seems to us that BARCIK has succeeded in doing that. Dr. Michael Hansen and G. Clare Westwood were also happy to see that farmers responded to them and asked them questions. The language barrier could not stop participants to be communicated and to communicate with the facilitators. However, the shared issues and theme concerned the life and livelihoods of farmers. If their livelihood is posed to risk, they certainly will find no other means to get survived. The findings of Mr. Hansen and Ms. Westwood have helped them a lot to decide which agriculture system would they need to follow-Corporate or biodiversity based agriculture? We hope and expect the present success of Shaymoly, Ruposree and Pankaj, the farmers of Baitora village, in breeding to find local varieties that produce good yield and their further success in practicing sustainable agriculture that encompasses diverse crops and tradition, culture and way life of human could inspire the other farmers in the district to adopt biodiversity based sustainable agriculture!

By Silvanus Lamin