Genetically modified cotton seed ‘blights’ Pakistan’s cash crop

Published June 22, 2015
“Almost 99 per cent of all cotton seed available in the market is genetically engineered,” said Dr Abid Mahmood of the Ayub Agriculture Research Institute. —AFP
“Almost 99 per cent of all cotton seed available in the market is genetically engineered,” said Dr Abid Mahmood of the Ayub Agriculture Research Institute. —AFP

ISLAMABAD: “Bt”, the genetically modified cotton seed surreptitiously introduced in Pakistan in 2005, is proving a disaster than a boon to the country’s strategic crop.

Growers say Bt has disproved its superiority over the indigenous seed which it has all but banished and in fact has introduced new pests, leaving them more and more dependent on the multinationals which hold exclusive rights on marketing the Bt varieties and the pesticides they need.

“Almost 99 per cent of all cotton seed available in the market is genetically engineered,” said Dr Abid Mahmood of the Ayub Agriculture Research Institute.

When Bt was introduced in 1996 to the world, its producers had argued that the new, pest-resistant technology would increase yields at lower costs. It is true that the US, China, Australia, Brazil and India successfully adopted genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds by strictly regulating the processes.

Genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds contain a toxin to kill selective insects. Lab tests extend up to seven years to determine the period local pests take to develop resistance to the toxin.

“Without doubt, Bt cotton is better than the indigenous non Bt varieties of cotton seeds against these pests,” said DG Agriculture Extension and Adaptive Research, Agriculture Department, Punjab, Dr Muhammad Anjum Ali.

But critics allege that the GM seed was brought to Pakistan for research and development in early 2005 but introduced within a few months. It was effective against Spotted and American bollworms and local Gulabi Sundi but not against the Lashkari Sundi, they say.

However, official sources insist Pakistan’s indigenous non-GM cotton posed numerous problems. It demanded plenty of water and extremely hot weather and viruses and pests killed cotton blossoms. All this threatened Pakistan’s cotton production every year.

Pests were a major concern, and the new GM seed took care of that problem, according to these sources.

It was introduced informally in March 2005, when the government of the then Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz laid down the Bio-safety Guidelines. In May that year, the government started selling Bt cotton seeds to farmers, without following the guideline about conducting six to seven-year-long trials of the new technology.

“The long trial periods are necessary to rule out health and environmental risks associated with genetically engineered crops,” said a Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) expert.

He recalled how, in 2005-06, the National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, Faisalabad, under Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, flooded the market with 40,000 kilograms of basic Bt cotton seed that it had made from technology stolen from multinational GM seed producing company and crossed/mixed it with indigenous cotton seed varieties.

In 2009-10, PARC, imported Bt cotton seed from China for plantation on 800 hectares in Punjab in violation of the Plant Quarantine Act 1976, which prohibits import of cotton.

“Under the law, the government could not import more than one pound of cotton seed, that too only for research purposes,” said the PARC official.

In 2014, Punjab government approved 23 Bt cotton varieties for cultivation in the province. Government-run research institutes the Central Cotton Research Institute, Ministry of Textile Industry, Ayub Agricultural Research Institute in Faisalabad and Ministry of Agriculture Punjab who had developed these varieties aggressively promoted Bt Cotton varieties, including MNH886, FH118, FH142, IR-3701, IR-1524, IR NIAB-824, CIM599 and CIM602.

Today, three million hectares, or more than 85 per cent of Pakistan’s cotton belt, are growing GM cotton.

Dr Abid Mahmood of Ayub Agricultural Reasearch asked cotton growers not to sow the indigenous non-Bt varieties, warning them they risked immediate pest attacks. He was also the first to author a report in November 2014 how the pests Bt cotton was supposed to kill had developed resistance against it much sooner than expected.

No matter such warnings, many Pakistani cotton growers still demand the indigenous non-GM cotton seed that they describe as unique.

“It’s unfortunate that the indigenous varieties the local farmers first ask for have been wiped out,” lamented cotton grower and seed seller Muhammad Ali from Vehari.

Qadir Rajpar, who runs seed business in Shahdadpur, Sindh, recalls the sturdy indigenous seed could withstand 40 degrees centigrade heat, while in Australia, China and India cotton crop could not tolerate temperatures beyond 38 degrees and would start shedding its flower.

When Jahangir Khan Tareen invited Dr Neil Forrester, a Bt cotton expert and ex-employee of the multinational seed company Monsanto, in 2008 he urged Pakistan to avoid Bt cotton.

In his presentations Dr Forrester explained that the biggest threat to Pakistan’s indigenous cotton was the cotton leaf virus, and pests were of least concern.

Today not only bollworms have developed resistance against Bt cotton, farmers have to spray twice as much pesticides such as Roundup Ready declared cancerous by the World Health Organization two months ago.

“Production of cotton has decreased and new pests like red bug and dusky bug have emerged, which the GM cotton does not kill,” said another cotton grower, Mian Saleem, from Kunri, Sindh.

Despite availability of latest Bt varieties such as Bollgard I and II, cotton production in Pakistan has not gone beyond 13 million bales a year whereas it produced a record 14.6 million bales in 2004 before Bt cotton was introduced.

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2015

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