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Illegal biotech cotton cultivation

August 06, 2007


THE government has embarked upon on an ambitious plan of “Cotton Vision 2015”. It has devised a three-pronged strategy with focus on biotech (Bt) cotton, developing the Cotton Leaf Curl Virus (CLCV) resistant varieties, and the development of hybrids. The aim is to have 25 per cent area under Bt cotton by 2009. On paper this is a foolproof strategy, but its enforcement will determine its success or failure.

On the other hand, influx of unapproved varieties of BT cotton continues in blatant violation of country’s laws. The government agencies responsible for checking this illegal practice, seem to be doing nothing despite the fact the Minister for Food, Agriculture and Livestock, Sikandar Bosan has said that these varieties are illegal and highly susceptible to cotton leaf Curl Virus.

People involved in this illegal business are making windfall profits without any remorse, and poor farmers are being swindled in the name of Bt. The farmers have no way to confirm whether the seeds they are getting have the Bt gene or are merely spurious.

In a recent national conference on cotton production, conducted at the Nuclear Institute of Agriculture and Biology (NIAB), Faisalabad, Dr Qadir Bux Baloch, Agriculture Development Commissioner, while highlighting the importance of GM cotton , advised farmers not to grow unapproved Bt cotton seeds. According to him, in random sampling of Bt cotton varieties available in the market out of 10 only one sample was found positive for Bt gene.

Last year, according to unofficial estimates, one to 1.5 million acres (15 per cent of total cotton area) were under un approved Bt cotton, whereas, during the current season 2007-08, the area can easily cross 30 per cent mark (2.7 million acres) of the total cotton growing area.

It is the responsibility of the government to check availability of unapproved Bt cotton in the market and educate farmers about the ill- effects of using spurious seeds. According to the Agriculture Minister Sikandar Bosan, the government had banned cultivation of unapproved Bt cotton varieties, but farmers cultivated them and got good yield. This has resulted in increase in the area under Bt cotton this year. If the government has reconciled with the position to control spurious seed plantings then the battle is half lost .

If uncontrolled use of technology is allowed to go on, there may be early build up of pest resistance. The lack of expertise with local seed companies, who claim to have developed these varieties, is bound to result in poor gene expression. Knowledgeable farmers are already expressing their apprehensions about the deteriorating lint quality from the unapproved varieties.

The country has done well in adopting the Bio-safety guidelines. It has taken another key step forward by formulating the Plant Breeders’ Rights Act and drafted amendments to the Seed Act 2007. Patents are already available for the technology. So there is an appropriate environment in place, also because of a. large number of dedicated and highly qualified biotechnologist, genetics, virologists and plant breeders at well-known institutes like the National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIBGE) and the Nuclear Institute of Agriculture and Biology (NIAB) in Faisalabad, and the National Centre of Excellence in Molecular Biology (NCEMB) at the Punjab University, Lahore, Centre of Agriculture, Biochemistry and Biotechnology (CABB), University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, and Central Cotton Research Institute (CCRI), Multan.

These institutes have the capacity of developing new crops and isolate and transform the desired genes. The government has promised large financial assistance to the institutes to help develop genetically modified (GM) local cotton varieties.

From merely 1.1 million bales of cotton produced when it came into existence, the country today is producing over 12 million bales per year. However, under the prevailing conditions the present yield per acre is very low – needless to say the country needs new and improved varieties or possibly hybrids that are high yielding and resistant or at least tolerant to diseases like CLCV and Mealy bug. In addition, there is need to move quickly to adopt new cotton technologies, such as, Bt cotton to face the severe infestation and losses incurred by insect pests.

There is a significant growth in the textile industry of the country. Prior to 2003 the demand of the industry was met by local production. However, now only 70 per cent is provided by local farmers and the rest 30 per cent is imported to meet its requirement. This is creating a great deal of concern among the industry, which is pursuing the government to ensure uninterrupted supply of raw cotton.

The country has undoubtedly lagged behind in the adoption of this important technology since the ministry of environment forbade to commercialise and cultivate Bt cotton variety developed by the National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (Nibge) after a controversy over the Bt gene ownership. The frustration is evident from the fact that we have failed to produce even a single variety of Bt cotton when compared to India where there are currently 111 (39 approved just this season) varieties available to farmers.

The area under cultivation of Bt Cotton variety in India has almost tripled to 8.6 million acres this year from 3.1 million acres in 2005. Four double Bt genes (cry1Ac & cry2Ab) cotton varieties have received approval for commercialisation from the Indian authority while about 121 Bt cotton hybrids are under various stages of field trials. India had a bumper yield of 26 million bales this year, and had produced a record 24.2 million bales of cotton last year. Experts believe the high yield was because of adoption of transgenic cotton seeds and timely rainfall.

In India more than one million small and medium farmers enjoyed the benefits of Bt cotton technology with increased yields, reduced pesticide applications and other health and environmental benefits. Pakistan can adopt similar strategy to catch up the fast pace of development in this field.

The atmosphere in the country has never been conducive to research and development (R&D), and no opportunity has been provided to private sector to work in the field of agricultural research together with the public sector.

Research to produce genetically modified crops is a painstaking job. Millions of dollars and years of concerted efforts are needed to develop these technologies. By allowing the unapproved varieties to thrive in the market, is almost like discouraging the institutions busy in research and development studies to evolve the required high-yielding varieties of the crop.

All that is needed here is to put the house in order. There is no denying the fact that Pakistan is in need of Bt cotton, and that to urgently. But the most important part of this equation is that it needs to employ legal and ethical means for acquiring this technology.

Enormous benefits of this technology can be reaped, provided correct, legal and ethical steps, with strict compliance to the regulatory systems of the country, are taken. For that there is need for immediate and effective measures to curb the thriving illegal business and uncontrolled use of technology, and create an appropriate environment for public and private sectors to ensure incentives for R&D and commercial release of these varieties.