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2-Plants: GE cotton may threaten Pakistan's cotton quality

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TITLE:  GM seeds lower cotton quality in US
SOURCE: The Dawn, Pakistan, by Shaukat Ali Bhambhro
DATE:   May 19, 2003

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GM seeds lower cotton quality in US

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

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 production respectively, followed by India,
Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

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 must.