Pakistan debates GM cotton’s success

Pakistan's scientists and farmers differ on GM cotton's success. Copyright: Saleem Shaikh

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[ISLAMABAD] Pakistan is beset by conflicting claims over the success of genetically modified (GM) cotton, now grown in over 90 per cent of the 2.5 million hectares under cotton. 

The GM cotton variety — also called Bt cotton because it contains a gene taken from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that resists the bollworm pest — was originally developed and patented by the US agricultural giant Monsanto

Cotton is the only GM crop that is grown in Pakistan. Pakistan’s National Biosafety Committee in March gave the green signal to Monsanto for a third round of tests on GM corn.

Though approved in 2010, GM cotton has been sown in Pakistan since 2005, using seeds smuggled in from neighbouring India, said Yousuf Zafar, director-general of agriculture and biotechnology division at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission.

Zafar, who earlier served as head of the department of plant biotechnology at the National Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIPGE), Faisalabad, said the government’s lack of interest in biotechnology has hampered promotion of agri-biotechnology in the country, and instead encouraged smuggling of GM seeds.

Abdul Sattar Qureshi, acting head, Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, University of Sindh, said bollworm and caterpillar attacks have reduced since GM cotton’s introduction.

"GM cotton seeds have yielded better results in coastal areas where humidity is high, but the output in dry and hot areas is dismal," Pakistan Agri-Forum chairman Muhammad Ibrahim Mughal told SciDev.Net, basing his observations on reports by farmers.

Abdul Majeed, president of the Sindh Growers Board, said Bt cotton gives high yields in the first few cycles of sowing, but its performance falls subsequently. Citing growers in the southern parts of the country, Majeed said output has plunged below 2,400 kilograms per hectare from 5,500 kilograms per hectare in 2008.

Unavailability of pure GM cotton seeds, inadequate irrigation, low rainfall and poor sowing practices were among the chief causes of yield decline, Majeed said.

"GM crops cast negative impacts on soil and other environmental regimes," said Tanveer Arif, chief executive, Society for Conservation and Protection of Environment, a leading non-government organisation, citing published reports. "GM crops will alter the existing genetic balance and transfer genetic traits to non-GM crops."

Monsanto’s head in Pakistan, Amir Mirza, said there were reports of declining GM cotton output, particularly in the southern coastal areas, but he attributed this to adulteration of seeds by local traders or retailers.