TIME and tide — and also season and weather — wait for no man. Taking this truism to heart, the government decided to move on a vital agricultural sector that has never failed to stir controversy. That is cotton production — the key cash crop for our economy. This time the government has decided to be discreet and avoid ‘unnecessary’ publicity.
Foremost came the devastating news that Pakistan had once again fallen short of the target set for cotton production this year as disclosed by the Pakistan Cotton Ginners Association in January. Only 8.3 million bales were produced as against 10.4m last year. Cotton production has been on the decline for more than a decade. Punjab, the province which has the largest share of the country’s cotton, has obviously suffered the most. It has also seen a fall in the area under cultivation and yield per acre.
Needless to say, this has had a severe impact on the textile sector that had traditionally been the mainstay of the national economy. In 2019-20, Pakistan has had to import 4.5m bales of cotton whereas there was a time when the country was a net exporter of raw cotton — 2.2m bales were sold abroad. Now textile mills are closing down.
Why this catastrophe? There are many who attribute it to climate change and water scarcity due to global warming. Some blame low-quality seeds and substandard pesticides available in the market for the falling cotton output. On these grounds, the same lobbies justify the switchover from cotton to sugar cane which actually requires more water than cotton. But generally, this is not known and the sugar lobby would love to displace their rivals — the cotton exporters, the beneficiaries of the government’s favours.
There is much evidence of GMO’s deleterious effect on health.
There is a strong section of opinion among the farmers that believes that these ‘excuses’ actually mask the real cause of Pakistan’s falling cotton production, which must be investigated thoroughly and impartially. On this depends the future of cotton in Pakistan, which is now in the doldrums. The fact is that cotton’s woes began when BT cotton (a genetically modified organism) entered the agricultural scene in Pakistan. The year 2004 is held up as a sacred standard as it was the last time that the country was blessed with a bumper cotton harvest of 14m bales (which is actually equivalent to 15.3m bales in terms of the lower weight set for a bale by the government since 2011).
The following year, GMO (now given the seemingly innocuous name of transgenic technology) was smuggled into Pakistan. It was later sanctioned by the government in 2010, albeit without any regular testing or waiting for the mandatory trial period.
Ever since, secrecy and lack of transparency seem to have characterised the backdrop of policymaking on cotton. The biotechnology giant Monsanto (now taken over by Bayer), which made its debut in Pakistan in 1998, came to dominate the agricultural scene in the country to the extent that in 2016 it was officially admitted that BT cotton had penetrated nearly 85pc of cotton cultivation. Today, it has contaminated the entire cotton cultivation.
GMO has its ardent supporters as well as its bitter critics, but there is a lot of scientific evidence pointing to its deleterious effects on human health as well as its failure to justify its own claims that it stops pest attacks, reduces the need for pesticides that toxify the soil while taking away the capability of seed production from the hands of farmers. What better proof is there to point to its perils than Pakistan’s cotton production data, which points to the decline of cotton production coinciding with the increasing use of BT seeds? Parallel to this is the jump in bollworm attacks.
In this context, the news from Islamabad is most disturbing. There has been a flurry of activity in the Prime Minister’s Office of late. A steering committee on transgenic technology with an executive body was set up to perform multifarious tasks related to cotton cultivation. This was suddenly reconstituted. The new body was to look into the cotton policy that Jehangir Tareen, a sugar baron, says the government has drawn up. The details don’t appear to be in the public domain yet. Some personalities on the reconstituted body are generally known for their strong pro-GMO leanings — one has even been connected with seed multinationals.
There is, however, some good news to report as well, this time from Quetta. Balochistan has gone organic. The provincial government has banned the cultivation of GMO seeds in the province. With the help of the WWF and the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International, it has successfully launched an organic cotton project that has just completed three years and promises to be a success story. It aims to expand the cultivated acreage and also produce seeds for the farmers. This needs to be observed carefully as it could lead the way in our battle against GMO.
Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2020