By Zubeida Mustafa
PAKISTAN’S economy is in grave trouble. According to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2015-16, it failed to meet the growth target of 5.5pc in FY2016. GDP grew by 4.7 pc. This was mainly due to the ‘major setback’ (to use the finance minister’s words) in agriculture.
At the heart of the crisis was a massive decline of 27.8pc in cotton production. It should be remembered that cotton is the mainstay of our agriculture and textile industry. The cotton crisis has emerged as a very controversial issue. Well-informed farmers attribute this disaster to the widespread use of genetically modified seeds that were formally introduced in the country in 2010 but were being smuggled since 2005. Now BT cotton (a genetically modified variety) is grown in 88pc of the cotton-cultivated area.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been challenged all over the world as some giant seed multinationals have grown phenomenally thanks to their aggressive marketing. If unchecked, they could dominate global agriculture. GM seeds will undermine biodiversity as the manufacturers ensure their monopoly in the seed sector. Being vulnerable to pest attacks, GM crops need pesticides in large quantities that poor farmers cannot afford. It is no coincidence that the manufacturers of these seeds also produce pesticides which account for a big chunk of their revenues.
Farmers are prediing another year of difficulties
Some facts are indisputable. Cotton production has not increased as promised since BT cotton was introduced. The decline is not fully reflected in the data released by the government because it has changed the measure used to determine the output, which is counted in the number of bales. Previously, each cotton bale weighed 176 kilogrammes. Since 2011 it has been reduced to 150kg. Using the old measure we know that cotton production had hit a record figure of 14.6 million bales in 2004. That figure has never been reached again and last year it was less than 9m bales (by the old measure).The per hectare yield as well as the area of cotton cultivation have been erratic. In FY2012, 2.8m hectares (about seven acres) were cultivated and the yield was 815kg per hectare. In FY2016, these figures were 2.91 hectares with a yield of 587kg per hectare respectively, which means the slight increase in acreage was offset by the lower yield.
The government blames the weather (frequent and excessive rains) and pest attack, mainly bollworms, for the fall in cotton output. In a recent notification, the Punjab government advised farmers to delay planting.
The farmers have another story to tell. They say it is the poor quality of seeds that has led to pest attacks and caused the decline in production. They are predicting another year of crisis. According to one media report this year, many farmers have switched to other crops and the area of cotton cultivation is considerably lower.
In spite of poor results, the government insists on approving GM cotton seeds. Thus in a meeting in February, the National Biosafety Committee (NBC) hastily approved the applications for nearly 100 GM seeds without following prescribed procedures. That is how Monsanto and Dupont were allowed commercialisation of GM corn without large-scale testing and biosafety risk assessment in open fields in Pakistan.
This was reconfirmed by the NBC in another meeting in April on the written orders of the prime minister. This is shocking to say the least. There has been a concerted effort to increase the private sector’s role and space in the seed market. Monsanto, an American biotechnology company, has been a big beneficiary of the changes in the government’s policies. In 2015, the Seeds Act 1976 was changed to “meet the requirements of the modern seed industry”.
Not surprisingly the pressure for change came from the US which wants Pakistan to meet its ‘obligations’ under WTO regulations and create a larger market for private seed producers. Previously, seed manufacturing and its price regulation was in the public sector. Now the private sector — mainly giant biotech companies — has entered the seed market in Pakistan.
WikiLeaks which brought into the open routine exchanges between US diplomatic missions in Pakistan and the State Department in Washington apparently revealed how Monsanto was in the picture in the formulation of cotton policies in the country.
To reject new technologies in a knee-jerk reaction is unwise. But it is worse to accept them indiscriminately without testing them rigorously under local conditions.
The Kissan Board has gone to court to get justice for the farmers. It filed a petition in 2014 challenging the NBC meeting that allowed the commercialisation of BT cotton that year. Its plea was accepted but the government went into appeal and the matter was put on hold. The government has proceeded as usual. Now another case has been filed challenging the government on constitutional grounds and for violation of the Cartagena Protocol. BT’s fate now hinges on the court’s decision.