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Growing BT cotton: merits and demerits

Published May 25, 2009 12:00am

ADOPTION of genetically-modified (GM) crops is a controversial issue the world over as regards its benefits and cost of cultivation. Genetically-modified seeds have some merits and demerits which need to be analysed before their adoption in any country.

The area under Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton in Pakistan is increasing with the passage of time since its induction through smuggling. Continued hue and cry by non-governmental and governmental organisations, the area allocated to Bt cotton has considerably been increased.

Some surveys indicate that more than 60 per cent of the cotton area has now been allocated to Bt cotton in spite of non-availability of registered Bt cotton seed. The government, of late, has also allowed its commercial production. Now the question arises that if Bt cotton is not providing any monetary benefit to growers, then why are they bringing more areas under it.

To ascertain the factors leading to diversion from traditional varieties to Bt cotton, and to determine the possible reduction in the use of pesticides and increase in yield and income, a research project has been initiated with the financial assistance of South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE) at the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad.

The motive behind this study is to collect the actual data from farmers' fields under Bt cotton, since some earlier reports from NGOs indicated total financial loss, while others by public organisations gave a favourable outcome.

An important fact about the earlier findings is that all these studies considered only one cotton growing season, which might have been a normal or bad season depending on climatic conditions and other natural factors. However, in the on-going study, care has been taken to study two cotton growing seasons and three different distinguished cotton-growing districts of Punjab.

Detailed data collection from various districts of Punjab is under process. In this article, results from a pilot survey are being given which reveals that majority of farmers (55 per cent) adopted Bt cotton on the assumption of increased yield, whereas 40 per cent reported that they adopted it because they learnt that it required very few number of pesticides against all kinds of pests and diseases, although Bt cotton seed is resistant to certain bollworms.

Private seed companies were major factors motivating them to adopt Bt cotton. As far as infestation of bollworms was considered, 65 per cent farmers pointed out that bollworms infestation was comparatively low on Bt cotton. Cotton leaf curl virus (CLCV) and mealy bug were two critical problems in cotton production in the recent times. Although Bt cotton seed provided no resistant against such problems, the respondents were of the view that intensity of such problems was relatively low in Bt cotton variety.

Further, 75 per cent farmers considered that Bt cotton cultivation resulted in higher yield and only ten per cent respondents were of the view that the yield was low.

Regarding economic performance of Bt cotton, it was found that comparatively less pesticide sprays resulted in lower cost of pesticide on Bt cotton. However, this lower cost was not enough to compensate higher cost on other inputs, such as seed, fertiliser and labour. Overall variable cost was higher in growing Bt cotton compared to non-Bt cotton or traditional cotton.

The respondents adopting Bt cotton seed reported higher yield, so, the resulting gross margins per acre were substantially large enough to compensate this higher variable costs incurred on Bt cotton production. Another important aspect regarding Bt cotton production was that the difference between number of sprays applied on Bt cotton and non-Bt cotton was not large enough.

The respondents reported that when they started spraying, they did it without any consideration whether it was Bt cotton or non-Bt cotton, indicating lack of knowledge and experience about Bt cotton production. Moreover, they were not carrying out proper pest scouting to determine threshold level of pests in their crops.

These findings suggest that adoption of Bt cotton seed provides considerable financial incentives to farmers to go for it. However, the cotton growers' income can be further enhanced if they are provided more information regarding time and the amount of sprays in Bt cotton production. At present, they have little information and experience of growing Bt cotton, solely depending on input dealers and pesticide companies for consultation regarding pesticide use and pest problems.

It is assumed that as time passes, they will become familiar with this new technology and its efficient utilisation will boost their income and reduce the cost of production due to less use of insecticide and reduced pest damages.

Now time has come to invest more in homegrown biotechnology in order to ensure long-term sustainability of our agriculture sector and economy as well. Institutions working on biotechnology should develop those cotton varieties which provide resistance to various types of pests with higher potential for increased yield.

Currently available Bt cotton seeds are not registered. Uncertified seed supply is rampant in the markets exploiting farming community in the name of Bt cotton at exorbitant rates. Thus the farmers at present face two types of financial losses, one in the form of fictitious Bt cotton seed resulting in low yield, and exorbitant seed prices.