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Production of strategic cotton crop falling alarmingly

November 30, 2015

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ISLAMABAD: The genetically modified ‘Bt’ cotton seed, introduced in Pakistan a decade ago to increase its vital cash crop to over 20 million bales by 2015, has done the opposite.

Agriculture experts and researchers report that this year’s production is four million bales short of the targeted 15 million bales. “Cotton production has declined continuously since 2005,” according to a Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) official.

In fact, the shortfall is of nearly 10 million bales against the target of 20.7 million bales, set in the Pakistan government’s Cotton Vision 2015 and approved by the World Trade Organization.

Experts agree that the alien seed is not the only reason for this letdown. State-run agriculture research departments not only failed to introduce an improved home variety of the cotton seed but also did not educate cotton farmers about the best modern practices.

Instead, the experts recall, efforts were made to introduce the imported, genetically modified Bt cotton seed.

As some had warned, after two years of trials conducted by the multinational Biotech seed producing company, Monsanto, in different parts of the country, the imported Bt varieties failed to perform in the local environment.

And the exorbitant and unaffordable royalty demanded by Monsanto for technology transfer became an extra burden.

GM cotton seed worth $2.4 million was imported from the Beijing Silverland Biotechnology Company in China, and commercially sown in 800 acres.

However, these also failed to deliver. “The quality of seed was substandard,” the PARC official explained.

Cotton Commissioner in the Ministry of Textile and Industry, Dr Khalid Abdullah, conceded that cotton production has been low but said that “this year, climate change-induced, special circumstances dominated in affecting sowing and delaying harvesting”.

The areas where cotton is grown has shrunk by four to five per cent because farmers are disheartened by the increased input costs – fertilizers and pesticides- and the low prices the crops fetch and they decided to grow other crops.

This brings down cotton yield to only 11 million bales.

Dr Khalid Abdullah thinks the Cotton Vision failed because its guidelines were not fulfilled.

“Unfortunately, there was no proper legislation, the quality of seed could not be improved and research was deficient. And these are just some of many other factors,” he said.

But Dr Qadir Baloch, former Agriculture Development Commissioner, Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock, believes that Pakistan is not addressing the real problem.

“Pakistan needs to find solutions to the Cotton Leaf Virus, which is the biggest threat to cotton production. Pakistan did not need genetically modified technology since it only killed pests,” said the expert.

In his view, Pakistan introduced the GM cotton seed “too soon and without conducting trials to determine if imported varieties would perform well in the local conditions.”

Another agriculture official blamed the sorry state of affairs on the drastic cut in agriculture budget, from Rs22 billion during the rule of Gen. Pervez Musharraf to just Rs1 billion today. But the military ruler also played “a significant role” in the decline of cotton production, he said.

Dr Khalid Abdullah sees further decline in cotton production as farmers in Sindh and Punjab switch to more lucrative crops.

“Farmers are now growing sugarcane in places best known for cotton production like DI Khan and Mianwali etc,” he observed.

Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2015