Can genetically modified crops improve the lives of the poorest farmers?
A production by Hidde Boersma, Philip Fountain and Karsten de Vreugd
Al Jazeera unintentionally used scrollytelling.io's code in the publication of "Bangladesh's genetically modified eggplants" published here.
As part of our media partnership with the EJC we pay for the reversioning of interactive stories from all over the world to reach our global audience. In this case we understood the code to be open source like all of the other EJC projects that we've worked on at Al Jazeera.
The original piece was taken down and replaced with the open source equivalent, Pageflow.
The practice of improving crops through genetic engineering is controversial.
The debate between opponents and proponents has been deeply entrenched for more than two decades.
Opponents are afraid the crops are harmful to both humans and the environment, although scientific evidence to support those claims has not been found.
Opponents also worry that genetically modified crops will enable large agricultural companies to control the lives of small farmers.
Proponents say genetic engineering can make agriculture more sustainable.
It also increases crop yields, raising the overall income of farmers around the world. The resistance to genetic engineering in Western countries is costing lives in the developing world, they argue.
But how does this pan out in the real world?
We paid a visit to Bangladesh, where genetically modified crops have recently been introduced.
This is Mohammed Shahjahan
He lives with his wife and two children near Trishal, a town 100 kilometres north of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.
Like so many others in Bangladesh, Shahjahan is a farmer. He does not currently use engineered crops.
Shahjahan is a landless farmer. Every season, he rents around half a hectare of land from his father-in-law. He hopes to earn enough money to buy a piece of land someday and build upon it a house for his family.
Shahjahan uses half the land to cultivate rice, the staple crop of the country. On the remaining land, he grows vegetables like cauliflower, beans and eggplant. Eggplant is one of the most widely consumed vegetables in Bangladesh.
This is Moinul Islam
He is one of the 250 farmers chosen by the government to grow a new crop variety: a genetically modified eggplant. Here, he stands with his sister among the new plants.
Islam lives with his wife and two children in Sadullapur in the northwestern province of Rangpur. He feeds his youngest son the standard breakfast: puffed rice. As vegetables bring in more money, they would rather sell them at the market than eat them themselves.
Bangladesh is one of the most populous countries in the world.
It is home to 161 million people in an area roughly the size of the US state of Iowa.
The country faces an enormous challenge: All of its arable land is already in use, but it will have to feed an extra 40 million people in the coming decades.
With 70 million farmers, agriculture is one of the most important sectors in the country. After China and India, Bangladesh is the third largest vegetable producer in Asia.
However, none of this produce goes to export. Everything is sold domestically at markets, like the Kawran bazaar in the heart of Dhaka.
Shahjahan is in the countryside, where the majority of Bangladeshis live and poverty is most rife. He works his land entirely by hand. He depends on every harvest to get through the season.
Although agriculture in Bangladesh is small-scale, farmers use synthetic fertiliser and pesticides copiously. Shahjahan's field is littered with torn pesticide sacks.
Shahjahan sprays his eggplants at least 80 times in a season of 200 days. Many of the pesticides he uses are banned in Western countries because of their toxicity.
When spraying, Shahjahan covers his hair to prevent it from sticking together. His mouth and arms, however, remain unprotected. If business is good, Shahjahan pays a professional to do the spraying for him.
The biggest enemy of Bangladeshi eggplant farmers is a worm aptly named the fruit and shoot borer. Even if farmers spray pecticides, they lose 20 to 40 percent of their crops to the parasite.
The genetically modified eggplant Moinul Islam is growing should change this.
The crop has been altered to contain a bacterial gene, which enables the plant to produce a compound that kills the worm. This greatly reduces pest damage, lowering the need for pesticides. The bacterial gene only targets the worm and some related pests, but it is harmless to other animals and humans.
There are 20 different types of eggplant, each with its individual characteristics. One is best served in a curry; the other tastes best when grilled. Bangladeshi scientists will backcross the anti-worm-gene in all varieties. This way, they keep the diversity.
This eggplant is the first GMO which has been specifically developed for farmers in developing countries.
The crop was originally intended for the Indian market, but activists managed to convince the government not to introduce it. In 2014, the Bangladeshi agriculture minister, Matia Chowdhury, decided to allow the eggplant.
Bangladesh's decision to allow modified crops has turned the eyes of ardent opponents and proponents towards it. The scientists involved in the project in Bangladesh remain focused. They just want their country to produce good, healthy food, they say.
But how do farmers like Islam judge the new genetically modified crops? We meet him in the middle of his first harvesting season.
Every morning, Islam brings his harvest to a market in town several hundred metres away. There he sells it to middlemen, who take it to other towns.
Islam's eggplants are popular, as they contain less pesticide residue and are perceived to be healthier.
For the 70 kilogrammes he brings in today, he receives 500 taka ($6.30). For an equal amount of regular eggplants, he would have received somewhere between 350 and 420 taka ($4.40- $5.30) last year.
Although the season is only half way through, Islam has already earned 30,000 taka ($380) from his eggplants. Last year, he only received 25,000 taka ($320) for the whole season. The higher profit is the result of a combination of lower pesticide use and expenditure, higher yields and a better price at the market.
Islam will use the extra money he earns with the genetically modified eggplants to buy more land. He also plans to make improvements to his house, parts of which are still built of corrugated iron sheets. Islam hopes to replace the sheets with stone.
On the way back to the capital, we encounter another farmer, who is growing genetically modified eggplants for the third season in a row.
In his first season, Afzal Hossain was visited by activists who warned him the new crops would be bad for his health. He, however, persisted and is satisfied with the crops. His yields are good and, at the same time, he uses less pesticides.
In three years' time, the genetically modified crops have improved Hossain's social position. Not only is his farm more profitable, but he also earns extra money by saving and selling seeds and seedlings to his fellow farmers.
Genetically modified crops may help Bangladesh cope with the challenges of a growing population. Over the coming years, the country will give farmers the opportunity to grow more genetically modified crops, including rice and potato.