Hybrid fruits - looming danger for biodiversity

Success stories were found to be either fabricated or misinformed.

Even the most absent-minded must have come across the two new additions to the list of fruits Bangladeshis have to choose from during this time of the year. Differing through colour and price, these two fruits are actually hybrids of the delicious plum or ‘kulboroi’. The new fruits seem to be linked to their parent through only their names: ‘BAUkul’ and ‘applekul’ People have embraced these fruits and the demands for the original are already waning. The situation is not going to change any time soon as fruit-sellers are stocking their shops with these items to take advantage of the high demand. ‘These two fruits are definitely gold mines for the farmers in Bangladesh. I am planning to cultivate these in my own land in Barisal very soon,’ says a beaming Abdul Matin, a fruit-seller at Kalabagan.

Fruit-sellers and farmers, like Matin, are reverting from their usual choice of fruits and vegetables as they have already heard of 150 to 200 per cent profit from the cultivation and sale of hybrid fruits by ‘other farmers like them’ on the television, radio and even in the newspaper. But as some agriculturalists and economists argue that the propaganda is likely to cause a long-term affect that will have these farmers lose more than what they will gain. ‘It is natural that such news, when combined with the bumper sale of these two new varieties this particular year, will lead most farmers to cultivate these plums in the limited number of lands available to them,’ reasons Farhad Mazhar, managing director of Unnayan Bikalper Nitinirdharoni Gobeshona (UBINIG) and a member of the Nayakrishi Andolon (New Agricultural movement). He explains that the essence of biodiversity, a process that is extremely necessary for an economy like Bangladesh will fade away due to such practices.

‘Also some of the reports do not focus on the disadvantages of BAUkul and applekul cultivation,’ he says. He also mentioned that investigations carried out by UBINIG to unravel the truth behind the so-called success stories were found to be either fabricated or misinformed. ‘However, farmers and fruit sellers are never going to delve into the issue. The promise of huge profits will motivate them to keep on cultivating and selling such fruits,’ he says. Matin admits that he got into the hybrid fruit business after hearing about Ranju, a farmer from Ullahpara district of Sirajganj, in a newspaper. ‘Ranju was stuck in a dire financial state. However, his luck completely changed when he came across an agricultural officer, who handed him seven plants of high quality kul from the Bangladesh Agriculture University (BAU) at Mymensingh,’ Matin tells New Age.

Ranju finally ended up planting around 900 plants of different varieties of kul in 5 bighas of land in 2006. ‘Finally, this year, Ranju sold around Tk 5 lakh worth of these kul, earning an income of around Tk 3.5 lakh. That is a profit of over 200 per cent! ’ exclaims a gleaming Matin. He admits that Ranju’s success story motivated him to harvest the same varieties. He argues that most sellers around him are currently making thousands through the sale of these new varieties of kul. ‘Despite having a higher price, BAUkul and applekul are selling like hot cakes,’ says another fruit-seller. He informs that the current rate of BAUkul is Tk 120 to 130 per kilogram while Applekul is Tk 80 to 90 per kg. ‘Compared to this, the originals are Tk 40 to 50 per kg. But I stopped selling them as more people are buying the new varieties,’ he says. He also plans to take an agricultural loan and cultivate these two particular plants at his village.

A frustrated Farhad says that ‘these individuals are acting on their whims and are very prone to being duped by unscrupulous nursery owners, as they lack the general knowledge required for such cultivation.’ He also explains that the management and the costs related to such cultivation are much higher than that of the original. ‘Also, the originals are more nutritious and tastier than the grafted fruits,’ he says.

Farhad also says that plantation of the originals would yield two to three times more produce than of these two particular hybrids. Therefore, the cultivation of the originals should still create more revenue. He adds, ‘cattle fertilizer is extremely essential for the successful cultivation of these varieties. The trees that bear these fruits absorb more nutrition from the soil than the originals while the fruits take longer to be borne than the originals.’ This means that it would cause the land to lose its fertility quicker and thus lose its long-term economic value. Farhad thinks that the original kul is tastier when used to make for pickles, which are being exported and has a large demand. ‘Most rural households still make their seasonal living through the sale of these pickles. However, the cultivation of these two new types will definitely curb the number of the original, cramping the growth of this sector and the livelihoods of the people involved in it,’ he speculates.

Dewan Masud, executive director of Unique Nursery, seconds Shykh’s notion that BAUkul and applekul are the veritable variety of kul that Bangladeshi agriculture had been seeking for years. ‘It took BAU 16 years to research on these varieties. They finally saw success four years back through grafted seed,’ he shares. He explains that the assumption that these are hybrid fruits and may cause health problems is a mistaken one. ‘However, these are really fruits from grafted seeds. The sale of these seedlings has recently gone up as farmers are seeing the light,’ he says.

Noted agricultural economist, Anu Mohammad, considers these fruits as a threat to our economic security. ‘This is a trend that we do not want occurring at this stage where we are staring down the barrel of a possible food scarcity,’ he says. In case of an imminent food scarcity, the way out would be to increase biodiversity through proper cultivation of all kinds of crops and vegetation. ‘However, under current circumstances farmers would use their lands for the cultivation of these fruits which can hamper production of rice and other more necessary crops,’ he explains.

There might be a decline or even complete wipeout of certain fruits and a loss of bio diversity. Farhad reveals that such losses have already been suffered, ‘Already, we are experiencing a shortage in the number of ‘narkel kul’, which people seem to have forgotten over the last few years, along with ‘Dhakai kul’, preferred by children and parents alike for the taste and nutrition it had,’ he says. He speculates that this scarcity will increase if a step is not taken soon by the concerned authorities to promote these particular types. ‘We would then need to live on these costlier varieties as farmers would cease to plant seeds of the original kuls,’ he adds. While Shykh does not entirely agree with all the notions against the cultivation of BAUkul and applekul, he urges the concerned authorities ‘Strict measures should be taken to ensure that unsuspecting and ignorant farmers are not cheated by unethical nursery owners, as was the case back in the eighties when the cultivation of kaji peyara (kaji guava) lead to many undesirable situations.’

Anu recommends the provision of agricultural incentives to farmers to get them to crop a wide variety of crops. ‘In other countries, incentives in marketing, management, subsidies, knowledge building and other ways, have ensured the growth and sustenance of an adequate production range of crops and fruit,’ he adds. Farhad stresses that farmers are being blinded by the success stories bombarded at them through the media. ‘The concerned authorities should have undertaken an objective assessment before handing these varieties of fruits, or any kinds of new crop for that matter, to the general public.’ He feels that the authorities still have time to make the necessary amends before things go totally out of hand (Syed Tashfin Chowdhury , New Age Extra, March 7-13, 2008).

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