GM seeds lower cotton quality (19/5/2003)

19 May 2003

GM seeds lower cotton quality

GM seeds lower cotton quality in US
By Shaukat Ali Bhambhr
19 May 2003, Dawn (Pakistan)

Cotton is the world's most important fibre crop accounting for 48 per cent of global trade in natural and synthetic fibre. Cotton is an ancient crop.  

Fragments of woven cotton fabric were found by archaeologists in Mohan-jo-Daro indicate that early farmers in the Indus Valley had already domesticated wild cotton over 5000 years ago. Similarly cotton was used in Egypt in ancient times.

Later, it was introduced by the Muslim caliphs of Cordove in Spain and from there it was taken to Europe. Today cotton is extensively cultivated in both sub-tropical and temperate regions around the world. China and the USA are the world's leading cotton producers, accounting for a quarter and fifth of world Unfortunately, cotton crop is vulnerable to dozens of insect pests and diseases.  

However, among the insect pests cotton boll worms particularly the American boll-worm (Helicoverpa armigera) inflicts severe damage to cotton crop around the world. When pesticide resistant insects posed threaten in developed countries like Australia and USA in 1970's researchers began developing integrated pest management (IPM) system.

Following implementation of IPM yield of cotton increases, resistant managed and industry successfully reduced its environmental impacts. New, genetically modified (GM) pest - tolerant cotton varieties are beginning to transform cotton production in Australia and USA since its introduction six years back. The Indian government has recently approved the cultivation of new GM varieties known as Bt cotton, containing genes for natural insecticidal protenes that kill leaf and fruit chewing pests.

In China, bollworm is the most severely damaging pest, destroying more than 15 per cent of China's cotton production each year. Genetically modified cotton in China covered a planting area of more than 7.4 million acres during 2001 accounting for about 35 per cent of the nation's crop. Monsanto, the American argri-business giant, introduced GM cotton in China in 1996 has aggressively lobbied the government to use its products for large-scale cultivation and marketing claiming the transgenic variety is environmentally friendly and economically beneficial for farmers.

But unfortunately, just after a short span of 5 years Gm cotton in China is reportedly posing a serious threat to biodiversity. A report from the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Sciences released in June last year concluded that genetically altered strain, known as Bt cotton, which was designed to combat the bollworm, is damaging the environment killing the natural parasitic enemies of the insect and encouraging other pests.

However, the most haunting aspects of Bt cotton cultivation reported recently in a newspaper was its impact on cotton quality. According to the chief executive of Dunavant Enterprises, a fall in quality is making it tough to sell cotton from mid-south and south-eastern United States. Short staple cotton fibre grown in Alabama, Arakansas, Carolinas, Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee and Mississippi has been increasingly difficult to market abroad. Mid-south and south-east cotton products have considerably damaged its reputation in the USA and world market.

In contrast cotton from Uzbekistan now commands a premium price in the world market whereas just five years ago, Uzbek cotton was the lowest among foreign fibre growth. According to William Dunavant and the US cotton growers genetically modified (GM) cotton seed was to blame for deficiencies in length and strength in mid-south US cotton. Since cotton is the backbone of economy of Pakistan, as it accounts for about 13 per cent of the cropped area, contributes more than one-third of the export earning to the national exchequer and produced over 55 per cent of the domestic edible oil.

It is imperative that national bio-safety committee (NBC), ministry of environment, take notice of this report that "genetically modified' (GM) cotton seed was to blame for deficiencies in length and strength in mid-south US cotton". This is absolutely necessary in view of failure of concerned government agencies, both at provincial and federal levels, to stop illegal Bt cotton cultivation on thousands of acres in Sindh province during kharif 2002 seasons.

However, so far as development of modern techniques in bio-technology and genetic engineering is concerned its promotion in the country is essential because this would bring conventional researchers and breeders in the stream of sophisticated technology. Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, had to wait for nature to toss up the right mutation. Today, using recombinant DNA technology and our expanding knowledge of plant genes, we can do it ourself. But, precaution is a must.
"No, quality has not improved. I still believe the [GE] seed is a major, major problem and I think a lot of people agree with that." William Dunavant Jr., chief executive of top U.S. cotton merchant Dunavant Enterprises, January 2002



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