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BT cotton technology: cost and benefits

December 15, 2008

COTTON is vital for Pakistan’s economy. It is an important source of livelihood for millions, and provides raw material for the textile industry -- the largest employer of non-farm labour and the biggest foreign exchange earner.

In spite of its importance, successive governments have failed to invest in research and development to enhance cotton crop yield, lowest in the region. Even with the increase in cultivated area under cotton, our annual output continues to hover around 11-12 million bales -- almost 75 per cent of total consumption needs of the spinning sector.

The industry has been importing two million or more bales of lint every year for some years now to meet its requirements. Nor much has done to improve the quality of cotton or reduce the level of contamination in it.

The challenge is to raise the stagnant cotton production. The issues constraining cotton output include higher intensity of insects and pests attack, shortage of irrigation water, high fuel prices, shortages of good quality and varieties of seeds.

The projected targets for cotton yields are not being met due to continuing crop losses mainly because of pest attacks, especially by cotton lead curl virus.

So shouldn’t the government be encouraging cultivation of BT cotton -- high yield and pest resistant variety? Is biotechnology really an answer to our cotton problem? Every one in the cotton value chain agrees that BT cotton can help us in more than one ways to overcome our cotton woes.

As the experience in several other countries shows BT cotton has many advantages. India, for example, has more than doubled its output to 31 million bales from 14 million bales in 2002 when it cultivated BT cotton for the first time. Now BT cotton is sown on 75 per cent acreage under cotton. China’s story isn’t much different and growers in both the countries have been experiencing sudden and significant jump in their per acre production and profits.

BT cotton was grown in nine countries in 2007 among which China, India and Brazil planted the largest areas.

Unofficially, the farmers in Pakistan too have been trying to grow BT cotton for some years now.

“At least 60 per cent of cotton sown this year was BT cotton,” says Ibrahim Mughal, chairman of AgriForum Pakistan.

But the shift has failed to increase per acre cotton output. “BT cotton doesn’t yield results in harsh weather conditions as exist in our traditional cotton growing areas like South Punjab. It also doesn’t work against CLCV and mealy bug,” Mughal argues. “It requires mild weather and more water. That means if we encourage it our crop pattern will be affected and we will be able to obtain only one crop as BT cotton has to be sown in Feb-March for better results.”

But Monsanto, the world leader in BT cotton, blames use of spurious BT cotton seed for lower than expected output per acre.

“The pirated varieties are not developed for Pakistan’s agronomic conditions and do not perform well, especially against mealy bugs and CLCV. Second, the farmers do not realise that they are purchasing poor quality BT seeds, but they reduce insecticide spraying - - raising the risk of increased pest damage, particularly later in the season. Raw material from unapproved BT varieties results in reduced quality cotton,” a company official says. “Majority of cotton farmers are using authentic Bollgard and Bollgard II cotton technologies in India, China, Australia and the US where other BT cotton technologies have been introduced and this clearly demonstrates the preference of growers based on benefits realised by them.”

The government has already initiated negotiations with Monsanto for introducing bioengineered cotton seeds. But, as Mirza Ikhtiar Beg, prime minister’s advisor on textiles, recently wrote in a newspaper that the company is asking its fee of $21 per acre.

“If BT cotton is cultivated on eight million acres, we would have to pay $1 billion in royalty fee to Monsanto,” he wrote.

Though Monsanto officials are not prepared to say anything on record regarding their negotiations with the government or their proposal, they say the company “only wants its share in the savings in costs along the cotton value chain in return for providing bioengineered -- Bollgard II -- to the farmers.”

The company says it has so far not determined the exact size of its fee or royalty, but acknowledges that it has to be more than in India -- where farmers are using hybrid seeds -- because the Pakistani authorities are asking for marketing “variety seeds” that can be used for four to five years. Hybrid seeds are used only for one crop.

“We are proposing that both hybrid and variety seeds be used in Pakistan simultaneously. Also we want that variety seeds are ultimately replaced with hybrid ones, which have more vigour,” a senior Monsanto official, who refused to give his name, told Dawn. Another reason for Monsanto asking higher royalty on its technology is the fear that it could be stolen and pirated.

Moreover, the anonymous senior Monsanto official argues that bioengineered seeds help farmers save huge cost on pesticides to protect the crop and prevent decline in yield.

The cultivation of BT cotton results in cost benefits to the growers in its host countries as well as protects the environment.

“The use of biotech crops has significantly reduced pesticide usage while increasing yields. It helps in reducing crop losses as the plant is less prone to disease like Bollgard and curl leaf virus. (BT) Cotton can protect against Boll worms and may reduce the current losses by half. Other measures like herbicide sprays can further reduce the losses due to weeds.

“A number of studies by public institutions have demonstrated that on an average, farmers growing BT cotton in India who had reduced expenditures on insecticides, obtained greater yields, and received an average increase in profit ranging from $76-$250 per hectare,” he says.

BT cotton has proven resistance against certain pests like bollworm and sucking complex, most farmers say. That means it requires fewer crop protection sprays than the local cotton.

“The farmers spend Rs60-63 billion annually on pesticide sprays to protect their cotton crop and, thus, also lose their competitive edge to Indian growers who have already switched over to BT cotton,” the anonymous Monsanto official insisted.

He said total pesticide sprays on one acre cost about Rs11250-12500 in case severe pest attack. In normal pest infection, the price falls even further.

In Punjab, for example, the per acre cost of farmers on account of insecticide sprays is estimated to substantially fall down to Rs2250-3750, resulting in cost benefits of Rs8750-Rs9000.

“This amounts to total savings of Rs60-63 billion on 7.25 million acres of cotton area,” the official said.

Mughal who acknowledges that the cultivation of BT cotton halves the grower’s costs relating to crop protection sprays to Rs1500, disputes the technology provider’s estimates about the per acre cost of pesticides use.

“Crop protection sprays cost around Rs3000 per acre to the farmers during the entire life of the crop,” he claims.

But agriculture ministry officials insist that the cotton output could be raised to 19 million bales by switching over to BT cotton. In addition to increasing the profitability of the growers, they say, it would save money on import of pesticides and insecticides, improve the quality of the fibre and protect the environment. “You can well imagine the benefits to the economy, growers and industry and exports by going for BT cotton,” said an official.