Concerns of an agricultural activist
Ijaz Ahmad Rao, farmer and agricultural activist, is concerned about a particular Bt ‘Cry’ gene. He has reason to be. Among the crops he grows is cotton – the non-GMO variety. He is concerned that, as in all other cotton-growing countries, his may get contaminated by adulterated – even fake Bt varieties, heavily promoted by some Pakistani scientists and local seed companies the past decade. — For which reason Rao suspects the damage has already been done where poorly-informed farming businessmen have been swayed by one-sided claims and promises of profits.
Earlier Rao had put his concerns to rest when in 2010, Shahbaz Sharif had rejected Bt cotton Introduction Model proposed by Monsanto. It therefore came as a great shock to him on learning from a “leaked” letter (No. DS(REGU)/13/OT-4/A/ 2871 dated 6th August, 2013) signed by Shahbaz Sharif early last month, seeking 15 more varieties of Bt cotton pending approval, to be given easy passage. Although test reports of 2012 from four government laboratories were discouraging. That made Rao so desperate – since violations of farmers rights and food security don’t make headlines the way violence and crooked politicians do – he wrote to the Punjab chief minister directly as a last resort. Not that he expects a reply – but he would still be happy with corrective action.
He felt the Punjab chief minister had been “misled by elements in the bureaucracy and had not informed him about the true picture,” and appealed to him to save the situation as he had done three years ago. Rao pointed out that in 2010 and 2012, the government’s own laboratories showed all proposed Bt Cotton varieties were tested and proved to have low Bt toxin levels of the gene known as “Cry 1Ac” , drawn from Monsanto’s Bt variety Bollgard I (now discarded by Monsanto in favour of its next-generation dual-gene Bollgard II). Low toxin results in rapid development of Bollworms resistance and was therefore hazardous for crops, he warned. Enough to make any farmer cry!
A National Biosafety Committee (NBC) meeting at the Ministry of Environment raised the “substandard” low toxin issue. Yet the Punjab Seed Council intervened and approved eight Bt cotton varieties and one Hybrid cotton from China. It merely agreed to review the varieties performance after one year or season. To date, this has not been done.
Thereafter a Ministry of Food and Agriculture (Minfa) committee discussed the concerns raised by the NBC, and agreed with them. Germination was also unacceptably low – below 40 per cent; it should be above 80 per cent if farmers are to avoid buying twice as much seed. Fiber characteristics and quality were also poor, yet the regulatory bodies took no action.
Instead the Punjab Seed Council considered 15 new Bt cotton cases, without any discussion. Nor did they question the eight previously approved Bt cotton varieties that failed.
Rao provided USDA data on average yields of Bt Cotton in India which have been declining since 2007 – including the latest Bollard II. He also refuted the claim that pesticides usage has been reduced due to Bt Cotton in Pakistan. “The fact is,” he said, “spray is used extensively to fight Cotton Leaf Curl Virus (CLCuV), mealybug, and other bugs against which Bt Cotton is not effective.”
Our yields have not increased due to Bt Cotton either. “Our highest was in 1992-93 – approximately 12 million bales. Highest ever recorded was in 2004-5 of over 14 million bales – when local non-Bt cotton varieties were used.” He decried the juggling of figures by authorities to show increased number of bales by using a lower bale weight of 155 Kg for the past several seasons, instead of 170 Kg which it’s supposed to be.
“Instead of investing more and more on Bt Cotton varieties, researchers should develop solutions for CLCuV disease which destroys 2-3 million bales virtually every season and are a far bigger problem than bollworms,” he asserts, “Nobody knows how much pests are actually in our crops. Bt claims it can control Pink Bollworms, Spotted Bollworms and the American Bollworm. However, Bt Cry 1ac does NOT control the Army Bollworm.”
What bothers Rao is that once a gene is cleared for bio-safety, it can be used in any other variety thereafter without the permission of NBC – it would permanently become free, open hunting ground for Monsanto whose global wealth and power elicits undue influence among decision-makers, to bulldoze through its double-gene Bollgard II Bt variety, as it did in India.
While elsewhere reports continue to emerge on the damaging effects of Bt, not only on cotton, but also on the soil and the indispensable microorganisms in it, on common food crops, on biodiversity, wildlife and human health, our scientists remain oblivious. Finally, our indigenous varieties which have broken into the global organic cotton market, is already being threatened at takeoff.
This article was published in Pakistan Today on 14 September 2013