ISLAMABAD: The government has advised farmers to feed livestock cotton waste, as a way to eradicate the Pink Bollworm, despite warnings from local and international organisations that such feed could harm animals.

On Jan 1, the Agriculture Extension and Adaptive Research department of the Punjab government, issued pamphlets recommending that farmers let goats and sheep graze on unpicked Bt cotton leaves and bolls left in the fields after the final picking.

The department believed that the measure would help control the Pink Bollworm, which has development resistance against the first and second generations of Bt, or genetically modified cotton.

Genetically engineered cotton was officially introduced in Pakistan in 2010, and makes up 86pc of all cotton sown in the country.

However, the Integrated Pest Management Programme of the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources has warned against feeding livestock Bt cotton waste.

The programme believes that a toxic fungus is produced after the Pink Bollworm, or Gulabi Sundi, eats through the cotton boll of the plant. It leaves holes that expose the interior of the boll to heat and humidity, which causes the growth of a fungus called aflatoxin.

In May 2015, the Okara Military Farms administration also expressed concerns over the toxic contamination of animal feed made from genetically modified cotton seed, which it says was deteriorating the health of its pedigree cattle.

The Centre of Excellence for Bovine Genetics (CEBG) an independent organisation of the Pakistan Army near Okara, said that aflatoxin had made cattle feed bitter and had attacked their reproductive system, especially that of bulls, lowering sperm count. The military farm said that aflatoxin contamination in milk for human consumption was 10 to 50 times higher than the permitted level of 2 milligrams (or 200 parts per billion)

Aflatoxin is a carcinogenic substance, which can result in liver cancer after entering the human body, as well as causing damage to the immune system and lowering sperm count in both humans and cattle.

A multinational biotech seed production company has also warned the United States Environment Protection Agency of aflatoxin found in cotton boll following a Pink Bollworm attack.

“Cottonseed production in Arizona (and regions in which pink bollworm is a significant insect pest) typically have high levels of aflatoxin due to the boll damage caused by the pink bollworm. Often the levels are sufficiently high that the seed cannot be used for animal feed,” Monsanto said in a report available with Dawn.

A senior official from the Agriculture Extension and Adaptive Research department, however, maintained that aflatoxin had nothing to do with Bt cotton. “Due to different schools of thought, aflatoxin is related to Bt cotton when it is not so,” the official said. Under the offseason Pink Bollworm management initiative, farmers have been advised to feed their livestock Bt cotton waste.

The official said the waste becomes a breeding ground for the Pink Bollworm. “We are facing extraordinary circumstances. The Pink Bollworm management programme will lessen the spread of this pest by the next sowing season.”

The official said the exercise is nothing new, and has been in play for several years.

Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2016