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A different ‘boll’ game

Bt cotton, vulnerable to pink boll worm attack, has failed to yield desired results in Pakistan. Why?

A different ‘boll’ game

Pakistan that was once a cotton exporting country faced a crisis in the year 2015-2016 when cotton production declined by around 30 per cent. Though experts and agriculturists attribute this shortfall to climate change and erratic rainfall to a great extent, the widespread use of outdated and untested genetically modified seed has also turned out to be the main reason for this crisis.

The genetically modified seeds were formally introduced in the country in 2010. But before that these were being smuggled from countries like India since 2005, a practice that still goes on without fail. As getting good yields with conventional seed is difficult, farmers go for Bt cotton which is grown in well above 80 per cent of the cotton-cultivated area.

There is nothing wrong with the use of Bt cottonseed provided the departments concerned ensure that the seed varieties are strictly linked with the gene expression and tested for conformity with local conditions including climate, soil quality and so on. But the problem here is that seeds developed for other environments reached here through smuggling and were sown without complying with biosafety rules. Furthermore, the seeds introduced at one time remained in use for long that compromised their effectiveness against pest attack and there were no genuine attempts to introduce advance generation Bt seeds. So, there is no second thought that the country will have to opt for a foolproof mechanism to approve advanced GM seed varieties in compliance with biosafety rules.

Genetically modified (GM) cotton refers to a plant manipulated and modified in the laboratory by artificial means. This is done by scientists by injecting an alien gene or genes from an unrelated species into the target plant. The goal is to forcibly introduce a trait in the target plant that does not already possess it, and to have it perform in a manner that does not otherwise occur in natural way.

“Bacillus thuriengisis” or Bt, is a bacterium which occurs naturally in the soil, but only in very minute amounts. It is active briefly when pests are still in the larvae stage, so that they die when they ingest the Bt. It was in early 1990s that cotton was modified by introducing the Bt soil bacterium into it. With Bt cotton, the Bt toxin becomes part of the cotton plant, rendering the entire plant toxic for particular pests.

Ideally, the use of Bt cottonseed must translate into bigger yields but the output of cotton in the country has remained static between 11-13 million bales per annum since the introduction of Bt cotton. This leads to the question as to what are the reasons behind this phenomenon?

Though experts and agriculturists attribute cotton shortfall to climate change, the use of outdated and untested genetically modified seed has also turned out to be the main reason for this crisis.

All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA) Punjab Secretary Anis-ul-Haq comes with an answer. “The Bt cotton seed in use in Pakistan seems to have lost its resistance against pest attacks. During 2015-2016, the pink bollworm attacked cotton and caused huge destruction of the standing crop. This worm is so strong that its traces remain there even after the picking of the crop and are passed on to the next crop.”

He also shares that agricultural experts have even recommended that farmers in the affected area shall not sow cotton crop for one whole season. May be this way they will be able to fully get rid of the pink bollworms.

The point stressed by Haq is corroborated by an expert in the government sector along with reasons in an official communication. In a letter dated 19-11-2014, written to the Secretary Agriculture Punjab, on “Pink Bollworm Infestation on Bt Cotton in Punjab,” the Director General Agriculture Research Ayub Agriculture Research Institute (AARI) Faisalabad puts the blame of destroyed cotton crop on faulty/inappropriate Bt seed.

In the letter available with TNS, he states, “The Bt cotton sown in Punjab is first generation Bollygard-1 carrying a single gene which was developed mainly for the control of American bollworm. (On the other hand), the main cotton growing countries i.e. China, India, USA and Australia have shifted to 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation Bt cotton carrying multiple genes.”

The reasons he cites for these countries’ shifting to advance generation Bt cotton are:

1. The advance generation Bt cotton gives season-long control of all bollworms whereas toxic level in 1st generation Bt cotton decreases after 90 days.

2. The 2nd and onward Bt generation cottonseeds have high level of toxin as compared to 1st generation of Bt cotton

3. 2nd generation Bt cotton has more toxin in floral parts as compared to leaves

The DG, in the letter, suspected that pink bollworm attacked early sown Bt cotton as toxin level was reduced at that time due to the age of the plant. Pest population of early sown cotton shifted to normal sown crop that caused huge damage. He also cites a survey that indicates that in most of the fields, non-Bt seed was mixed with Bt varieties. Therefore, Pink Bollworm survived on non-Bt cotton and shifted to Bt cotton plants at the later stage of the crop. The situation worsened as, due to the lower rates of cotton in the market, the farmers did not adopt plant protection measures especially at the later stage of the crop.

Ahmed Rafay Alam, an environmental law practitioner, says after the 18th amendment, there is no mechanism to approve the GM seed varieties. Before that the federal government could approve these varieties under Biosafety Rules 2005. He says, “The Director General Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (Pak EPA) had confessed in the court in 2014 that there is no regulatory mechanism in place in this regard and promised that he would not issue a single license to private companies.”

Alam says he did not issue a single license but after his transfer in 2016, the DG Environment was given the additional charge of DG Pak EPA under whose tenure around 80 licenses have been issues. This has been challenged in the court that has fixed the date of hearing later in the year, he adds. “What worriers me the most is that many licenses are pertaining to GM seeds of edible crops like corn and wheat and unregulated seed’s use may be harmful for people’s health and lives.”

An official in Pak EPA asserts the demands to not issue licenses regarding commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) crops will have a negative impact on exports from Pakistan to EU, especially when the country has been awarded GSP Plus status.

He says initially the Lahore High Court (LHC) put a bar on issuance of these licenses but the federal government pleaded that the regulatory process of international protocols and conventions falls in the domain of the federal government, therefore is not the subject of the provinces. The federal government is following protocols in this regard and will soon promulgate Plant Breeders’ Rights law that will protect intellectual property rights of the companies and individuals who introduce new varieties.

Rafay Alam rejects this point and states, “The federal government has no mandate to pass such laws after the 18th amendment as agriculture is no more its domain.” Secondly, he says, the said law will compromise the rights of farmers as they will become dependent on seed companies whose seed will not be usable for the second time. The farmers will have to buy new seed every time.

Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

shahzada irfan
The author is a staff reporter and can be reached at [email protected]

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