Pakistan: GE-ed cotton alarms farmers, NGOs

by Muddassir Rizvi

Islamabad, 24 Oct 2000 (IPS) -- Pakistan’s government is set to introduce genetically engineered crop cultivation in the country, amid fears that this will hurt not only tens of thousands of small farmers but also lucrative cotton exports to Western markets.

A ‘transgenic’ cotton variety, also known as “Bt cotton”, with in-built resistance to pests that can destroy one of Pakistan’s main foreign exchange earners, has been developed not by a foreign agribusiness company but by the government’s own farm research institutions.

Government officials here say the seeds will be available in the market before the next sowing season. “We have conducted a three-year biosafety impact assessment of this variety and found it safe for introduction to the farmers’ field,” says Kauser Abdullah, who heads the premier Pakistan Agriculture Research Council in Islamabad. The Bt cotton has been tested against strict international norms, he adds.

“We are the world leaders in developing Bt cotton,” claims Abdullah.

Research work on transgenic cotton was begun in the mid-1990s by Pakistan’s Nuclear Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIBGE) after successive cotton harvests were hit by a pest, causing extensive damage to the country’s cotton-based farm economy.

Cotton is Pakistan’s major cash crop and accounts for almost 60 percent of the country’s $10 billion annual foreign exchange earnings. More than 20 million people depend on the crop for their livelihood.

Pakistani scientists claim the NIBGE cotton variety will ensure a disease-free crop and stabilise export earnings. The Bt cotton can resist some of the most damaging pests like tobacco bollworm, bollworm and pink bollworm. The genetically engineered cotton variety will reduce use of chemical pesticides and lower farming costs, they point out.

But those opposed to such crops say that once the government allows the use of Bt cotton developed by its farm scientists, it will have to allow similar crops designed by global agribusiness companies.

“If we allowed one genetically modified variety, we’ll have to open our markets to foreign companies under the World Trade Organisation’s agreements,” says Mohammad Arshad, an Islamabad-based consumer rights activist.

The US-based Monsanto is already pressing the Pakistani government to be allowed to introduce its Bt cotton variety. Monsanto claims that its transgenic cotton will boost farmers’ profits and cut down environmental pollution.

According to A Rehman Khan, Managing Director of Monsanto Pakistan Agritech (Pvt) Limited, Pakistani farmers will find its product more environment-friendly and cheaper. “Monsanto company developed Bollgard cotton, commonly known as Bt cotton, as a novel approach to controlling pest injury in production agriculture,” Khan wrote in a letter to Pakistan’s government.

“The goal was to provide cotton farmers with more environmentally friendly and efficacious insect control at a reduced cost.”

Government officials told IPS that Monsanto’s Bt cotton would be approved for use only if it clears the country’s strict biosafety standards.

“We will first ascertain that the transgenic variety does not have any adverse impact on the country’s rich biodiversity,” says Akhlaq Hussain, Director General of the Seed Certification and Registration Department. “Protecting the environment and people’s health is our foremost priority,” he adds.

Pakistani laws require the owner of a transgenic seed to guarantee that the crop variety will have no harmful biosafety impact, he says. But opponents of genetically engineered crops are not satisfied and say that such plants are developed without giving sufficient attention to the actual environmental circumstances in which the crops will be grown.

These crops must be subject to compulsory monitoring for at least 10 years to ensure that there is no harmful ecological impact, before commercial cultivation is allowed, they say.

“We are concerned that transgenic varieties will also result in the loss of biodiversity, which small farmers in developing countries maintain,” says Mushtaq Gadi of Sustainable Agriculture Research Group, a national coalition of Pakistani farmers’ groups.

Large-scale farming of such crops will replace the “richness of local varieties with vast monocultures of a single variety”. This will actually make the crop more vulnerable to attack by pests or disease, says Gadi. Farmers’ rights groups are also worried that the introduction of the  genetically engineered crops will deprive farmers of their traditional control over seed.

The government is set to enact a plant breeders rights law in keeping with Pakistan’s obligations under the new world trade rules. “Such a law is necessary for protecting our cotton variety from piracy,” says a Ministry of Commerce official.

However, farmers’ rights activists allege that under this, farmers will not be able to save, exchange or share seeds for commercial use. At present, more than 85 percent of farmers in the country set aside a portion of the annual harvest for future use as seed.

Opponents of transgenic cotton also argue that it would hurt exports of the crop. “The introduction of transgenic cotton will badly hurt the export earnings as such varieties have failed to earn acceptance in many countries where Pakistani exports of cotton and its products are destined,” says a member of Pakistan Kissan (Farmers) Board, a leading cotton farmer’s group.

“Why is the government allowing such a cotton variety, which it cannot export to the countries of the European Union?” he asks.

According to official statistics, the bulk of Pakistani cotton exports go to western European markets, where genetically engineered crops are facing severe resistance from consumer groups.

The European Union has sent missions to Pakistan in the past few years to look into reports that the country was commercially growing Bt cotton, say some government officials.