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Thursday, February 24, 2011

First Bt Cotton Grown in Pakistan

Cotton is an important cash crop for Pakistan known as “white gold”. It accounts for 8.2 percent of the value added in agriculture and about 3.2 percent to GDP; around two thirds of the country’s export earnings are from the cotton made-up and textiles which adds over $2.5 billion to the national economy; while hundreds of ginning factories and textile mills in the country heavily depends upon cotton. Life of millions of farmers is dependent on this crop, in addition to millions of people employed along the entire cotton value chain, from weaving to textile and garment exports The area under the cultivation of cotton crops has been increased significantly in the last 30 years - around 7.85 million acres in 2005-06 as compared to 7.2 million acres in 2002-03. Beside being the world’s fourth-largest cotton producer and the third largest exporter of raw cotton and a leading exporter of yarn in the world our yield per acres ranks 13th in the world; as a result Pakistan annually imports around 1.5-2.00 million bales of cotton to meet growing demand from local textile mills; therefore it has become vital for Pakistan to increase its yield per acre.

There are many reasons for low yields of cotton crop in Pakistan - high price of agriculture inputs (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides etc), higher intensity of insects and pests attack, shortage of good quality and varieties of seeds, deficiency of water for irrigation, lack of advance technologies, awareness and agro-professionalism, and adulterations in pesticides, fertilizers and seeds. It is unfortunate that there is no proper cotton crop insurance system available in Pakistan, while government does not provide any support or subsidy to cotton growers for inputs - resulted in frustration and lack of motivation in cotton growers. Farmers are facing with a number of risks till marketing of their crops including unexpected factors like inflation, high price of energy, unfair competition and speculation in open market by big cotton buyers. Although, government claims that they have excellent micro-economy policy to improve the livelihood of farmers and elimination of poverty in rural area through bank-loans offered to the farmers, however, the interest rates are fairly high.

Agriculture biotechnology is helping today to provide people with more and better crops, food and holds even greater promise for the future. Green revolution farming methods are coming to an end with declining yields due to environmental and soil degradation, loss of seedling varieties and high input costs. So, many farmers around the world are turning to genetic engineered varieties (GE) to confront with new challenges. Many Asian countries including China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan and Vietnam are giving high priority to plant biotechnology research in the hope of addressing the pressing challenges related to improving productivity, farmers livelihoods, driving rural development, and meeting food security demands. Many of these countries focus their biotechnology research on food crops and non food crops and crops of high commercial value in the hope of meeting increasing food requirements and reducing use of pesticides and poverty alleviation in rural area.

If we look at the Pakistan scenario, two major types of pests are damaging our cotton crops – sucking and chewing; to certain extent it is easier to control sucking pest by strong pesticides but is very challenging to control chewing pests - Bollworms known as “Sundies” – American, Army, Pink and Spotted - cause major devastations in the cotton crop fields; as a result of this, overall both quality of lint and production of cotton have declined substantially. Moreover, recent disaster resulting from the cotton leaf curl virus (CLCV) spread in Punjab and Sindh pushed our institutes like Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIBGE) and Nuclear Institute of Agriculture and Biology (NIAB) in Faisalabad, and National center of Excellence in Molecular Biology (NCEMB) at Punjab University Lahore to cope with such problems; significant amount of financial resources and manpower have been committed by the Government of Pakistan for developing genetically modified (GM) local cotton varieties.

Pakistan has already surpassed the major obstacle on its way to adapting to biotechnology by enacting the Biosafety Rules in April 2005. These rules setup legal requirements for import, export, transport, and handling of biological agents, genetic engineering organisms or vectors, seeds, crops and foods, besides setting conditions for the researchers; seeds developers and companies. Usually it takes two to three years to do proper assessment for any Biotech crops before its commercialization. Whereas, Pakistan Atomic energy Commission (PAEC) had sought special permission in 1997 from the Ministry of Environment under “Voluntary Code of Conduct for release of GMO into the environment” prepared by NIBGE; and it conducted, checked and analyzed many safety tests on various cotton varieties which contain gene of genetically modified organism called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacterium that is deadly to the “Sundies”.

In May 2005 PAEC provided 40,000.00 Kg basic seed of Bt cotton (insect resistant) varieties “IR-FH-901”, “IR-NIBGE-2”, “IR-CIM-448” and “IR-CIM-443”; which have been grown over 8,000 acres of land in season 2005-06. Its encouraging outcomes have surprised every one from seed companies to the farmers who cultivated these varieties. These early users of Bt cotton have been tightly screened and evaluated by PAEC on the bases of their capacity to follow Bio-safety rules.

Farmers, who cultivated these Bt cotton varieties at heart of cotton growing regions in Punjab - Bahawalpur, Multan, Muzaffer Garh and Karor Pakka; observed and evaluated independently its resistance and susceptibility to different pests including factors like abiotic stress and yield than compared it with non Bt cotton varieties grown in the same locations. A large number of farmers have visited these fields, and become aware of the benefits of the locally developed Bt cotton.

Although germination of these Bt cotton seed varieties vary from 65 %, to 85 %, but mixing or impurities were less than 2 %. In the beginning overall attack of “Lashkari Sundi” “American Sundi” and other bollworms remained low as compared to previous years but attack of sucking pests like Jassid, Whitefly, Thrips and other Aphid were high in both Bt and non Bt cotton crops. No serious incidence of cotton leaf curl virus disease was reported in Bt cotton varieties. Heat stress in cotton crop was also recorded in different region, however no stress was observed in Bt cotton varieties. Army, Pink and Spotted bollworm were active from July to October with peak infestation during September but Army remained in the field after spray for limited time period; IR-901, IR 448 and NIBGE 2 with minimum damage was recorded as compare to non Bt cotton crops. It is worth mentioning that infestation of American, Pink and Spotted sundies remained significantly low throughout the season in Bt varieties as compare to infestation in non Bt cotton varieties. Maximum alive larvae of Army, pink and spotted bollworm were recorded in fields of non Bt varieties around 7-8 per 15 plants while only larvae of Army bollworm were recorded in IR- 448, IR 901 and NIBGE-1 around 3 – 4 larvae in 15 plants. It is also important that newly hatched Helicoverpa Armigera when eat leaves of the Bt cotton crops died after few days; no larvae reached to pupal stage while in non Bt it has developed into pupa. Significant number of spray has decline in Bt cotton varieties; 4 – 5 applications as compare to non Bt cotton crop 6 – 9; most of spray were used to control sucking pests; however in chewing; pests spray was required to control Lashkari sundi. Although Bt cotton also provides significant control of targeted bollworms but supplemental foliar insecticide sprays are occasionally required to keep other bollworms from causing excessive damage in Bt fields.

Bt cotton varieties yielded significantly more per acre as compare to non Bt cotton varieties - an average 23-28 maund (1 Maund = 40 Kg) per acres versus 17-20 maund to traditional cotton varieties. This translates into more than 30 percent increase in yield. It is noteworthy that in Bt cotton crops average number of cotton Bolls per plant are 120 while average Boll weight is app. 1.75 grams including seeds and number of plants per acre are as recommended by the department of agriculture. The economical gain by using Bt cotton per acre is more than Pak Rs. 3,000 at the market sale price of Rs. 1100/ Maund. In Pakistan average cotton grower has 10 acres of land; increase in such small income per acre would improve his quality of life. It is expected that cotton growers should have Bt seeds of the above varieties for at least 75,000 acres of land in year 2006-07.

Besides cotton lint; tons of edible oil is extracted from cottonseed in addition to that over two million tons of oil seedcake is also produced as feed for livestock and poultry. Series of safety studies have been carried out at NIBGE including health risk assessment and environmental concerns; it conducted that Bt cotton leaves/feed has no health hazards and side effects on human, animals and it safe for environment. These studies created a positive consciousness and confidence among the Pakistani scientist and people about Bt cotton. In February 2006, World Trade Organization ruling against European Union; directs the EU to end its defacto moratorium on biotech crops and GM food. EU had an effective ban on biotech foods for six years beginning in 1998 while ended its moratorium in 2004; it began allowing imports of GM products on a case-by-case basis, individual. EU grows less than 1% of the world's gene-modified crops and has approved more than 30 GM food and animal products since 1994. Washington has said it will continue with its WTO case until it is convinced that all applications for approval are being decided on scientific rather than political grounds; the ruling supports a 15-year study funded by the European Union itself found that biotech plants and products have not “shown any new risks to human health or the environment” and concluded that these foods are in fact safer than conventional foods- this curb on imports of GM foods should bring great benefits to farmers and rural areas worldwide.

Today, all major cotton producing countries are benefiting from the cultivation of Bt Cotton. In the last season 54 percent of cotton crops grown in USA, 76 percent in China and 80 percent in Australia were with “single” or “double” Bt gene technology. India, the world’s third-largest cotton-grower has cultivated 1.36 million acres of Bt cotton crops. It is expected that within two years more than half the world’s cotton may be grown from genetically modified crops.

Pakistan also realizes the significance of Bt Cotton, and the top political leadership including the Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz himself has said to a delegation of farmers that government would allow farmers to grow Bt cotton soon, which confirms government’s policy of being open to genetically modified crops in the near future. Other ministers have also spoken in favor of adopting the Bt Cotton.

Crop reviews carried out by various independent sources illustrate that unrecorded sowing of new Bt cotton varieties also played its role in increasing cotton productivity, with unofficial estimates suggesting 3 to 5 percent of the area in Punjab and 10 to 15 percent of the area in Sindh may have been planted in transgenic cotton.

We shall discuss the unapproved varieties of Bt Cotton separately because these exotic varieties are throwing different and some very serious challenges to the cotton crop in Pakistan. Nevertheless, the indigenously developed IR-cotton varieties with Bt gene have proven resistance to cotton’s major bollworms, and have a potential to reduce the number of pesticide sprays and will be friendly to environmental. It will increase yield per acre and reduce cost of production. However, few issues related to seed quality have been reported, which have no link with Bt technology and are germplasm specific. These problems must be addressed in the new version of Bt varieties like size of bolls, maturity period etc.

Biotechnology offers tremendous benefits to the agriculture in Pakistan. But in order to benefit from its true potential, government and all key stakeholders including farmers, seed companies, R & D institutes, seed dealers and traders involved in commercial activity related to seed will have to act responsibly and ethically. If we choose to ignore regulatory frameworks that govern the chain of activity, and international agreements on biosafety that Pakistan is signatory to, to make quick bucks or in an attempt to provide a speedy access of technology to the farmers, we shall end up losing the benefits from the technology in the long run by undermining it. We have to ensure effective, stringent, and transparent enforcement of Biosafety Rules 2005, Seed Act 1976, and Punjab Cotton Control Ordinance, to encourage the introduction of technology through legal means with its complete package of benefits.

Farmers! Please be advised that…

 Select only approved Bt Cotton varieties by the Government of Pakistan, and avoid pirated Bt cotton varieties or fake bands under name of Bt cotton seeds available in the market. These varieties could potentially serious damage crops, our health and environment. The uncontrolled release of genetically engineered varieties might irreversibly damage our cotton crop, just like “Banana Bunchy virus” from untested and non approved variety of banana from Australia has done in Sindh. These exotic and unapproved Bt cotton varieties are invariably susceptible to Jassid attack and are very vulnerable to CLCV. In year 2002 “Burewala visrus” which resulted in huge losses to the cotton crop in the country, was due to the introduction of a foreign untested variety that was not suitable to our soil and climate.

 Bt seeds are highly dependent on agro climatic conditions, genotype of the variety and management of crop. In some areas, certain Bt varieties may be inappropriate for local growing conditions and may fail to produce satisfactory results. For example under high night temperatures and under hot dry conditions, bolls may drop off the plants. Therefore use only those approved Bt cottonseeds varieties; which are tested for your local agro-climatic conditions.

 Bt varieties provides protection only against certain pests (sundies) such as, American sundie, Pink and Spotted sundies; but not against Army or Lashkari sundi; you have to spray if you find pests which cannot be controlled other wise you will lose your crops and money.

 Right dose of Bt toxin “Cry-protein” in very crucial in each Bt seed; if we keep growing the same Bt seed over time; the right amount of Bt toxin will reduce and pests will develop resistance to Bt toxin – so it will harm our agriculture, may be health, environment and undermine the emerging technology.

 So far, no Bt cotton developer has claimed that Bt varieties would increase yield due to presence of genetically modified organism; however, the increase in yield can be achieved since the crop is protected from the damages caused by pests.

 Don’t be disheartened from the original technology, as the half-baked technology in your access does not represent the true benefits of Bt Cotton.

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