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Punjab government shuns Bt cotton

January 22, 2012

The fact remains that if Pakistani scientists can develop seed varieties, for which efforts are under way for long, that increase per acre yield, then there is no need for any deal with a foreign firm. – AFP Photo

AT a time when GM agriculture is being pushed into the developing world by agribusiness giants, Punjab government’s decision to drop the idea of introducing Bt cotton in the province may be viewed as a bold act of rebuff to the neoliberal paradigm.

The decision, if not reverted under pressure, will spell a major setback to Monsanto, the US agrichemical company, which has over the years been lobbying the federal government, and now provincial governments after the passage of the 18th Amendment, for its Bt cotton varieties and was now close to ink a much-awaited deal.

However, the radical step, which has been taken primarily on financial grounds, has evoked an unfavourable response from a segment of the feudal elite. A former Speaker of National Assembly and a leading agriculturist Syed Fakhr Imam is of the view that the radical step should first be discussed by the Punjab Assembly’s committee on food and agriculture.

Monsanto had signed such an agreement with China in 1996, later with Australia and with India in 2002. “We can sign such an agreement but only after reviewing all aspects of the matter,” he said.

The fact remains that if Pakistani scientists can develop seed varieties, for which efforts are under way for long, that increase per acre yield, then there is no need for any deal with a foreign firm. What is needed are varieties which can resist mealy bug, sucking and chewing pests and cotton leaf curl virus. One reason leading to cancellation of talks with the US multinational has been the inability of its Bt cotton varieties to kill these pests. Officials say that these pests have emerged as the biggest threat to cotton in Punjab. Then, another adverse impact noted is that the animals are unable to digest the cotton cake prepared with seeds of Bt cotton and often develop sickness.

Ahmad Ali Aulakh, Punjab minister for agriculture, who is behind the change in cotton policy, is a known opponent of Bt cotton and of a deal with Monsanto. GM cotton, he claims, hardly offers a solution to the problems cotton cultivation faces in Punjab. Besides, it is too costly for poor farmers.

The letters “Bt” stand for Bacillus thuringiensis, a toxin-producing bacterium found naturally in soils. Scientists have isolated certain genes responsible for the production of these toxins and have then used genetic engineering techniques to insert them into cotton. As cotton plants produce the Bt toxins, susceptible pests die when they eat them. Bt cotton plays a critical role in the biotech industry’s efforts to push GM agriculture around the world. It is more than a decade that Bt cotton was commercialised and introduced or tested in more than 20 countries.

On May 13, 2008, the ministry of food, agriculture and livestock (Minfal) signed a Letter of Intent with Monsanto with a view to expand cotton production by using its ‘Bollgard’ variety. On April 10, 2010, Pakistan signed an MoU with Monsanto for introducing ‘Bollgard-II’ technology after extensive discussions between the ministry officials and representatives of the company, through a process endorsed by the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of the Cabinet. The signing ceremony was witnessed by the federal ministers for agriculture and textiles.

Before the MoU was initialled, two senior scientists had cautioned the government against signing any deal with Monsanto, saying it could harm the interests of growers. Dr Anwer Naseem, chairman, National Commission on Biotechnology, said on March 21, 2010: “There is a need to get sound, critical and scientific input from experts in the country before signing a deal.” Dr Abid Azhar, deputy director of AQ Khan Institute of Biotechnology said there were instances when growers have been forced to purchase seeds from the multinationals for every crop after the introduction of their varieties. “In this way, the multinationals have attempted to monopolise the seed business,” he said.

This fear has repeatedly been expressed by the Seed Association of Pakistan (SAP) while warning the Punjab government against falling in trap of an agreement with the American agro-chemical company for hybrid cotton seed. This seed can destroy national seed companies, in addition to causing huge financial burden on the public exchequer, the association says.

The SAP also asked the government to refrain from granting exclusive rights to Monsanto to sell seeds and from making royalty or compensatory payments to it for it has not passed all the required tests and trials. Whatever field trials it carried out were in Punjab and Sindh during 2010 and these have failed to show resistance to CLCV. Ironically, these trials were conducted on the imported Indian hybrid cotton seed and not on local varieties. It pointed out that the German multinational Bayer is providing the same technology (Bollgard-II) without seeking any royalty and compensatory amount. So is the case with Biocentury Transgene, China’s leading biotechnology provider. Why should we, it asked, then pay the US company for the same technology when we can get it free of cost?

In Pakistan, the farmers have been growing cotton from Bt seeds, smuggled from India, for the last six years. Their experience and some field researches show that there had been bad results. Apart from high costs, the farmers complained that the so-called pest-resistant plant was attacked by all kinds of pests. Mealy bugs that destroyed cotton fields and spread to other plants as well came with Bt seeds. Monsanto has been struggling since 1998 when it entered Pakistan to create a market for itself.

GM technology arrived in India in 1995, when Monsanto teamed up with India’s Mahyco company to import Bt cotton seeds, which were crossed and repeatedly backcrossed with local varieties to ensure their adaptation to local conditions. When Bt cotton was introduced in 2002, it was greeted with distrust. It was out of reach for poor growers because of its prohibitive cost of over Rs1000 per bag of 450 grams. Maharashtra gave approval for commercial trials of Bt seeds in 2005.

The global financial crisis of 2007 and the shortages it caused in the world proved to be a blessing for the multinationals selling GM seeds and products. Japan and South Korea, long known for consuming organically grown corn, began buying GM corn for use in soft drinks, snacks and other foods.