Cotton, Opinions

Bt cotton in butcher’s hand

By Ijaz Ahmad Rao

Agricultural use of genetically modified (GM) crops across the world has increased almost seventy fold in the past ten years and is set to double by 2015, says a study released by The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Application, a non-profit organization. It has been estimated that GM crops were planted on 282 million acres worldwide during 2007.

At present, 23 countries plant such crops, with a further 29 allowing imports for GM food or GM animal feed. The GM seed industry is dominated by an American company whose seeds are planted on more than 90 per cent of global biotech acreage.

Adoption of Bt cotton has risen dramatically in the world from 1.90 million acres in its introductory period in 1996 to 19.40 millions acres in 2006. Area planted to biotech varieties increased to over one-fourth of the world total in 2005-06, and it is estimated that biotech varieties account for 38 per cent of 86.5 million acres planted to cotton in 2006-07. It is remarkable that in the last cotton growing season 78 per cent of cotton crops grown in USA, 70 per cent in China and 80 per cent in Australia were with single or multiple Bt genes. Where Bt cotton has been adopted, average yield reportedly increased from 10 to 45 per cent while pesticide cost declined by 65 per cent in China, 58 per cent in South Africa, and over 50 per cent in India.

“There will be a doubling of the number of countries involved, a doubling of the number of hectares and the number of farmers involved will rise almost ten fold,” said Clive James, chairman and founder of the ISAAA. “At a time when you have soaring commodity prices and sky-rocketing energy prices, you want a technology that will increase the supply side and bring down the cost of production and this is what you have in this technology,” he added.

India has reported the highest proportional increase of any biotech crop country in the world with a gain of 63 per cent in 2007. Area under Bt cotton rose from 0.11 million acres in 2002 to some 3.1 million acres in 2005; five years later the Bt cotton area has soared to 15.32 million acres which is 66 per cent of the total estimated cotton area of 23.56 millions acres during the 2007-08 season; grown by 3.8 million small farmers. According to one assessment in India Bt cotton has increased yield by up to 50 per cent, reduced insecticide sprays by half and increased cotton growers income by over Rs10 thousand per acre. Such extensive coverage by the high yielding bollworm-resistant Bt cotton has helped in boosting cotton production to an estimated all time high cotton crop of 31 million bales in 2007-08 up from 28 million bales than last season.

Bt cotton has helped the country in narrowing the gap between national and world average yields. India has achieved high productions mostly by increasing its yield and not increasing its area under cotton. Last year, India exported 4.8 million bales and this season around 5.9 million is expected; so it is rightly to say that India has shifted from traditionally cotton importing to cotton exporting country since the adoption of Bt cotton, crops maximization program and transparent government policy.

The Indian government has approved more than 62 cotton hybrids—four events including double-stacked genes marketed by 25 private seed companies during 2007-08. One event, the GFM developed by Nath Seeds featuring fused genes cry 1Ab and Cry 1Ac is sourced from China. An indigenous event is developed by JK Seeds featuring Cry 1Ac gene is sourced from IIT, Kharagpur. The rest of Bt technology in use in India is owned by Monsanto, licensed to Mahyco and sub licensed to other seed Companies. Experience and high adoption of Bt cotton by farmers have confirmed the efficacy of Bt technology for control of pests and their confidence in the technology.

Although China is one of early adopter countries of Bt cotton (since 1996), in 2007 India overtook China in terms of the area under Bt cotton cultivation and the number of genetically modified cotton seed in the pipeline for approval. India began cultivation of Bt cotton in 2002, but its area under Bt cotton has increased to 9.4 million acres in 2006 exceeding for the first time, that of China’s 8.65 million acres. India is the only country to grow all four species of cultivated cotton.

Chinese scientists have developed fifty-five new GM cotton strains, bringing economic returns of 2.5 billion US dollars. China has a cotton area of about 13.2 million acres, the largest producer of cotton in the world—Bt cotton is planted on 9.38 million acres during 2007-08 up from 8.65 million acres last year; which is equivalent to 69 per cent of all cotton planted in China. At present level its cotton production is equivalent to 46.0 million bales. China has a remarkable experience of massive adoption of biotech crops by small farmers who represent some of the poorest people in the world.

It is worth mentioning that Bollgard II technology has a unique and superior double gene technology, Cry 1Ac and Cry2Ab derived from soil-borne bacterium, and provides in-built protection against bollworms and spodoptera caterpillar

In Pakistan, an all time record cotton crop of 14.5 million bales achieved in 2004-05 on the other hand the worst failure of cotton crop was seen in 1983-84 when its production was at 2.78 million bales against year 1982-83 crop of 4.75 million bales—production remained less than 10 million bales during 1993-95, and 1998-1999 due to out break of by cotton leaf curl virus and high temperature more over humid climate condition has contributed to the eruption of different Bollworms like Pink, Spotted and American, which severely damaged the cotton crop in Sindh and Punjab provinces.

Last year Pakistan imported 1.9 million bales at a cost Rs. 27 billion while this year our textile industry has imported the highest 3.5 million bales of cotton worth Rs. 55 billion from the USA, India and Central Asia due to crop shortage in the country. It would be difficult for our textile industry to compete textile giants like China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and Sri Lanka in export of textiles when we have to import a larger amount of cotton to meet shortfall of our cotton requirements.

Scientists at National Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIBGE) Faisalabad, and National Center of Excellence in Molecular Biology (NCEMB) University of the Punjab, Lahore, are in the process of introducing Bt cotton varieties with high tolerance against the cotton leaf curl viruses, the Multan and Burewala strains.

Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Livestock (Minfal) is exploring all possible options to take on Biotech cotton as soon as possible that’s why Minfal is negotiating with different international sources from USA, China even India in order to speedup in this regard.

However there are number of obstacles causing delays on Bt cotton adoption:

1. All cottonseeds varieties (Bt and non Bt) are vulnerable to the cotton leaf curl virus furthermore a unique cotton pest mealy bug has emerged in cotton crops.
2. There is no hybrid cottonseed lines at public or private institutes; moreover the existing cottonseed varieties have very low yield
3. Although American technology from Monsanto is considered more reliable and stable than other sources but its license fee, royalty on Bt genes and technology is considered high
4. Political uncertainty in the country
5. Lack of political well
6. Weak IPRs system
7. No biotech policy
8. Large cotton growing area is under exotic and non approved Bt cotton varieties
9. The sale of spurious Bt cotton seeds
10. Needed system for fast implementation and enforcement of Biosafety Guidelines 2005
11. Amended Seed Act 1976 and Plant Breeders rights have to be approved the parliament
12. Cotton seed Control Ordinance need to be activated to check the quality of seeds
13. Poor enforcement system to control illegal & unapproved Bt cotton seeds

The process to take on biotech cotton and other GM crops can get faster if Monsanto can have joint venture with Pakistan’s public institutes. It would be a wise approach to speedup the process if the government of Pakistan allows to carry-out biosafety assessment of Bt Cotton by Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Health, and its seed (germplasm) evaluation by Minfal side by side during the same season.

In the last three years illegal genetically engineered cotton is spreading at a brisk pace in Pakistan despite reluctance of some countries to adopt this technology. According to Global Agriculture Information Network report published in January 2008 the illegal Bt cotton varieties planted in about 40 per cent of Pakistan’s cotton region. According to 2006-07 estimates, 1 to 1.5 million acres which is 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 (2.5 million acres) of the total cotton growing area.

A survey report published in 2008 revealed that Bt transgenic crop was widely grown in cotton growing areas of Sindh and Punjab. The survey report “Status of cotton harboring Bt-gene in Pakistan” was conducted in the cotton growing areas of Sindh and Punjab during July-August 2007. Laboratory investigations were carried out at National Agriculture Research Center for detecting Cry protein. The major objective was to investigate the presence or absence of Cry toxin in Bt transformed cotton. In Sindh province 10 districts Hyderabad, Nawabshah, Sanghar, Mirpur Khas, Dera Allah Yar, Umer Kot, Matiari, Khairpur, Sukkur and Nowshero Feroze were surveyed and samples of cotton were collected from 42 different locations. It was observed that almost 80 per cent of the cotton growing area in Sindh has become under illegal and non-approved Bt cotton. An exotic source of Bt cotton named as Australian Bt was found in the field.

Similarly 11 districts Multan, Khannewal, Lodhran, Bahawalpur, RY Khan, Vehari, Bahawalnagar, Pakpatten, Sahiwal, Jhan and Faisalabad were surveyed in the Punjab and samples of 84 field different sites were collected. Almost 50 per cent area has been occupied by non-approved Bt cotton in these districts. Bt-121 cotton variety has occupied the major area. Beside Aus-Bt cotton genotype other source of Bt cotton local origin was also prevalent in the field.

According to survey in Sindh province, district Sanghar has the maximum area over 90 per cent under illegal Bt cotton. Similarly in Punjab Khanewal, Vehari and Bahawalnagar have the maximum area over 60 per cent under non-approved Bt cotton.

All positive samples harbored Cry1Ac/Ab gene, whereas none of the sample was found to have Cry2Ab and Cry1F genes.

According to the study the level of Bt gene expression varied from low to high indicating that source of seed is different. Threshold level of Bt protein is very important extremely low level of Bt toxin may lead to development of cross-resistance. A wider range of segregation 10-20 per cent was observed in some of the Bt cotton fields. Sever infestation of armyworm and sucking pests was observed in the fields of Bt cotton. All the Bt transformed germplasm is very susceptible to CLCuV. This will play a role in the evolution of new virus strains as it has happened in case of “Burewala virus” resulting in huge losses to cotton crop in the country.

The report highlight that the Bt gene has been transformed into such genetic backgrounds as they do not meet the fiber quality standards in some of the Bt cotton fiber length was shorter when compared with a non transgenic approved cotton variety.

Most of the growers planted Bt cotton first time they only know the word “Bt”. Majority of them do not have exact awareness about the resistance mechanism of non-approved Bt cotton against pests. Moreover very wrongly they think Bt cotton has resistance against all kinds of insects and diseases. Probably it has been propagated by seed companies as marketing trick. However most of the farmers were quite clear about the source and name of Bt transformed genotypes. The source of seed was some private seed companies, progressive farmers and researchers.

Bt cotton is being grown with different names i.e. IR-901, IR-2403, IR-2316, Bt-1524, IR-1000, IR-2389, IR-2456, NIBGE 1, ASR-10, ASR-5, ASR-12, ASR-2, ASR-7, Bt-446, Bt-473, Bt-496, CP-140, Bt-121, BR-102, BR-103, Bt-448/10, MG-1, MG-2, MG-3, FH-113, Bt-196, Bt-133, Bt-Karishma, Bt-448-133 and Bt-101. Of all these genotypes Bt-121 occupied more than 40 per cent and was relatively better than other Bt cotton as regard to uniformity.

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 of knowing whether the seeds they are getting have the Bt gene or are merely spurious seeds.

National Biosafety Guidelines 2005 must be followed to approve all GM crops varieties. This will encourage the introduction of this advanced technology through legal means with complete package of benefits.

Moreover it has been reported that this year the Punjab Seed Corporation (PSC), a semi autonomous government body which provides certified cotton seeds to the farmers, was alleged to have purchased cotton seed of non-approved varieties of Bt cotton from certain well-known farmers. A little while back, the PSC had advertised sale of Bt cotton in national newspapers. Last year PSC had opposed the sale and cultivation of Bt cotton. A ban on the cultivation of non approved Bt cotton is still in place. If the private-sector companies had sold the cotton seed of banned varieties, they would have been tagged “seed mafia” but the government institution’s malpractice went unnoticed.

We can reap the benefits of new technology if we take the correct, legal and ethical steps with strict compliance to our own regulatory systems, provided there are immediate and effective measures taken to curb the thriving illegal business and uncontrolled use of technology, provided an appropriate environment is created for public and private sectors to ensure effective incentives for R&D and commercial release of these varieties. However, by allowing the unapproved Bt cotton varieties actually we are not helping our farmers nor doing any service to the country. It will send wrong message to the potential investors in this sector and depriving our public sector institutions who are involved in the development of Bt cotton. It would be in our interest to safe our national trade identity cotton from any butcher hands who want to gamble on our strategic and economical assist.