Pakistan has been using genetically modified cotton seed, also known as Bt Cotton, for the last 10-12 years in order to overcome pest attacks and weed problems on standing crops.
Successive governments, the agriculture bureaucracy and scientists have kept promoting Bt cotton varieties since 2005 without realising that cotton production has continued to decrease and new pests emerged because of the mix of seeds.
And growers are still using first generation of bollgard when other countries, including India, use 2nd and 3rd generation of the variety
A recent report published by The New York Times titled ‘Broken Promises of Genetically Modified Crops’ has also made the stunning disclosure that genetic modification in seeds in the US and Canada has not accelerated an increase in crop yield or led to a reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.
Official figures show that cotton production has significantly dropped from around 14.2m bales in 2004-05 to about 10m bales in 2015-16. Punjab, with 80pc of the national chunk, portrays a similar picture.
The comparison of crop cultivation between 2004 and 2015 shows the number of cotton bales (1 bale carries 170kg weight) produced in the non-Bt/GM cotton era, in 2004, were 11.15m on a 6.22m area with 24.49 maund (1 maund=40kg) yield per acre, which dropped to 10.27m bales on 5.995m acres of land with 22.03 maund yield per acre in 2005 after the informal approval of Bt cotton in 2005.
The ICAC, in its 75th plenary meeting, has demanded that the country revert to traditional varieties of cotton and conventional methods of insect control to improve crop productivity
In 2010, the era of formal use of Bt cotton, production of cotton bales declined to 7.87m bales on 5.35m acres with 18.57 maund yield per acre. With some ups and downs in the three categories the situation was worrisome in 2015 in which the number of bales produced touched 6.343m with 14.72 maund yield per acre on 5.54m acres of land.
According to final estimates of cotton crop during kharif 2015-16 in Punjab, the acreage under crop is placed at (2.24m hectares) 5.54m acres as against that of (2.32m hectares) 5.74m acres sown during the corresponding year. The area shows a decrease of 3.4pc over the previous year which is due to a lower price of cotton crop and low Bt cotton yield per acre. This shows that growers are reluctant to bring more area under the cotton crop, shifting it to other competitive crops instead (Maize, sugarcane, Jowar, Bajra).
The production of cotton crop is estimated to be at 6.34m bales (63.43 lac bales) during the year 2015-16 against that of 10.28m bales (102.77 lac bales) produced last year, a decrease of 38.3pc over last year.
A corresponding decrease in area; excessive rains during the months June, July and August which badly affected germination and the growth of crop; plants/acre, bolls/plant and boll weight kept the cotton crop under stress throughout the season; and attack of white fly, pink bollworm, jassid, and army bollworm significantly reduced yield per acre.
Agriculture experts say the continuous use of Bt cotton is affecting germination quality as cotton growers usually use more than the required quantity of seed. They further say the number of pesticides sprays have also increased and new pests like red bug, dusky bug, and stainer have also emerged in the Bt cotton era.
Agriculture scientists and researchers have not been able to introduce better indigenous varieties of cotton seed owing to meagre research funds, lack of expertise and long delays in the approval processes.
Interestingly, the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) in its 75th plenary meeting in Islamabad has demanded that the country should revert to traditional varieties of cotton and conventional methods of insect control to improve crop productivity.
A recent report published by The New York Times has also made the stunning disclosure that genetic modification in seeds in the US and Canada has not accelerated an increase in crop yield
“Bt cotton is a total failure in Pakistan as it has created new bugs and insects which were never seen in the past. First the government itself imposed a ban on the introduction of Bt cotton in Pakistan in 2005, but later allowed it after different interests, including seed companies in connivance with agriculture ministries and departments, launched a propaganda that Bt cotton will control all worms except the Army worm and sucking pests”, said Ali Muhammad of Lodhran district, who has been growing cotton since 1980s.
He says the use of Bt cotton is destroying cotton cultivation as many farmers have switched over to other crops like Maze and pulses on the recommendations of the agriculture department officials.
According to him, the cotton growers have grown cotton only on one fourth of the total area in Lodhran district in current season. Muhammad is of the view that local varieties like F 12, MNH 93, VH 48 were the best seed varieties of old times in terms of cotton yield.
Director General Research Agriculture Department Dr Abid Mahmood, however, claims the first generation of Bt cotton seed in Pakistan managed to eliminate the American bollworm and spotted bollworm from crops.
He, however, concedes that contrary to other countries that have been using second and third Bt genes since 2002 onward, Pakistan has yet to introduce these genes to overcome the new pests and weeds.
“The lack of funds has apparently led to non-introduction of advanced Bt cotton genes and the government needs to invest on it on a priority basis”, Mahmood claimed and said the private sector had also failed to bring in the country second and third generation genes.
He is of the view that the Bt cotton seed has nothing to with the increasing cotton production or yield per acre but its different varieties can be linked to overcoming more pests and week controls.
It is time for the government to strengthen research institutes for promoting local cotton seed varieties. It also needs to cut bureaucratic hurdles in the way of quality seed approvals besides controlling sub-standard and mixed seed in the market.
The 21pc drop in cotton sowing in Punjab in outgoing Kharif season 2016 and over 30pc drop in cotton production in Pakistan in 2015-16 should be an eye-opener for the government, and agriculture bureaucracy and scientists to move forward to save future of around 1.4m farming families associated with the cotton sector.
Published in Dawn, Business & Finance weekly, November 21st, 2016