Catholic aid agency raps Bt cotton (18/6/2007)

NOTE: Caritas is an international network of Catholic aid agencies. According to the article, Caritas Pakistan-Multan has been helping marginalized farmers through its agriculture program since 1986 and has 3,000 farmers in Punjab currently involved in Caritas programs.


Caritas raps BT Cotton, encourages farmers to use natural methods
Indian Catholic (News Site of Catholic Bishops Conference), 18 June 2007

CHISHTIAN, Pakistan (UCAN): Javed Ghulam was disappointed by the slow growth of a newly introduced variety of cotton last year, contrary to the grand claims made for the genetically modified strain.

His concerns grew at a meeting run by the local Church's Caritas social-service agency that highlighted the seeds' alleged environmental hazards.

Talking with UCA News, Ghulam, 36, said the popularity and publicity surrounding Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton convinced him to take the "risk" he now regrets.

"While approved commercial varieties of cotton require water supply seven or eight times and only one sack of urea fertilizer during its six-month cultivation period, I had to purchase three sacks and adjust the furrows 11 times to irrigate this 'pygmy' crop for seven months," he said.

The Catholic farmer was one of 35 participants, most of them farmers, at a press conference entitled "Say No to Bt Cotton." Speakers highlighted what they claimed were the harmful effects of Bt cotton and the perceived monopoly of multinational companies that sell such agricultural products. The Agriculture and Environment Development Program of Caritas Pakistan-Multan organized the May 31 event in Chishtian, Punjab province, 500 kilometers southeast of Islamabad.

The Ministry of Food and Livestock approved Bt cotton only on April 26, and provincial governments have yet to give approval, but seeds have been available illegally. Bt varieties reportedly are being cultivated on about 200,000 hectares in Punjab and Sindh provinces.

Bt crop varieties, such as cotton and corn, are modified through introduction of a Bt gene that causes the plants to produce a toxin that protects them from certain pests

Such applications of biotechnology are controversial, however, in terms of unknown possible consequences on the environment and ethical questions over ownership and profits from the technology as well as genetic manipulation itself. The multinational companies that have developed and produced Bt seeds claim greater yields with reduced pesticide use. Bt cotton, first introduced in the United States and Australia in 1996, was later planted in India, which has produced a further 40 versions. India began commercial planting of BT cotton in 2002.

However, farmers from Madhya Pradesh state began complaining of itchy skin and swollen faces after planting BT cotton.

According to Shoaib Aziz, program officer for "Food Rights" at Action Aid Pakistan, an NGO, Bt cotton seeds were illegally imported to Pakistan from Australia in 2005. Two varieties have since been developed in Pakistan by the National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, and the Centre of Excellence in Molecular Biology.

At the gathering, Gulzar Sadiq, the coordinator of the Caritas program for agriculture called on the government to prevent danger to health and the environment by reversing its decision to allow "artificial cotton varieties" to be used in the country.

He claimed humans could ingest Bt toxin through cottonseed oil, used for cooking, and cited reports of skin inflammation caused by contact with the crop. Goats have died in India eating its leaves and people have died from drinking the milk of infected goats, he claimed.

Sadiq alleged that multinational companies are bent upon ending natural farming methods in pursuit of money, disregarding the hazards of genetically engineered food. "The first step is attracting farmers to fertilizers and pesticides, and later modified seeds are sold, which can only be used for one crop," he said.

Caritas Pakistan-Multan has been helping marginalized farmers through its agriculture program since 1986. Currently 3,000 farmers in southern Punjab are involved in Caritas programs aimed at reducing their use of chemicals.

The Caritas Integrated Crop Management Program regularly holds "field schools" for farmers twice a year, after crops are harvested.

Talking with UCA News, Sadiq, 34, explained that the "experimental strategy" involves a class of 25 farmers. "One of them volunteers one acre (about 4,000 square meters) of land, where efforts are made to produce more crops with less chemical fertilizer and pesticides," he said.

Natural fertilizers such as animal waste and sugarcane juice are mixed in water and then applied to test plots. In 2006, one out of four test plots failed to produce the desired yield because the owners wanted to use chemical fertilizers, he said.

Caritas also holds seminars, veterinary camps and tree-planting programs.

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