Pakistan cotton crisis

January 2017

Photo credit  Håkan Löndahl on Flickr
Pakistan's economy is in trouble, mainly due to a major setback in its agriculture and textile industry. At the heart of the problem is a massive 27.8% drop in cotton production.

A multitude of factors has been implicated this decline.

February 2016 saw international cotton prices touch a six-year low.

Frequent and excessive rains have badly affected germination, plant growth, and the final yield of cotton. Habitual over-sowing by many farmers further reduces germination quality.

No one could miss the pest problem: mainly bollworms (pink and army worms) but also whitefly and jassid, and new menaces such as red bug, dusky bug and stainer.

Informed farmers blame the widespread use of GM cotton seed which many consider substandard. Pakistani growers continue to plant first-generation Bollgard Bt-insecticidal cotton year-on-year. Elsewhere, in the world, second- and third-generation stacked multi-gene Bollgard varieties are in use. GM cotton was officially introduced in 2010, but this was after five years of smuggled inferior GM seed which probably remains in the system. 

The authorities seem to have most to answer for. Successive governments, agri-departments and scientists have kept promoting Bt cotton with scant heed to the realities on the ground. Since 2011, the weight of a 'standard' bale of cotton has been reduced by 15%, disguising the subsequent fall in cotton yield. 

And, things are going to get worse because, under pressure from the US and World Trade Organisation to create a larger market for private (mainly US) seed producers, the Pakistan Government has been rushing through GM approvals without the necessary field-testing and risk assessment.

Some more rational remedies have been suggested to improve crop productivity: increased research funding, recruitment of expertise, and a practical approval process to introduce better indigenous cotton varieties. The International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) has demanded Pakistan should revert to traditional cotton varieties and conventional methods of insect control. These would benefit the country far more than subservience to the biotech industry and its GM snake-oils for all agri-ills.

The farmers' answer is to grow some other crop. This, of course, works for farmers but not for their Government in its quest to increase the country's GDP, nor for industry's quest to increase its bottom line.

India, which now grows 97% GM cotton since it was introduced in 2002, has its own problems. Unlike Pakistan, India has moved ahead with new-generation GM cotton. Despite this, it produces the fewest bales of cotton per acre and is also battling pests on the crop. Two monsoon failures back-to-back haven't done India's cotton crops any favours either. Like Pakistan, pragmatic Indian farmers are switching to other crops while in some areas a wholesale return to indigenous cotton strains is in progress.


Let's hope the tide is turning on GM cotton in both these countries before too much damage is done.

Tell our Agriculture Minister, George Eustace, to take note of what's happened in these two countries, and re-think his dream of a GM-filled England [1].

  • Mayank Bhardwaj and Rajendra Jadhav, Indian farmers cotton on to new seed, in blow to Monsanto, Reuters 2.08.16
  • Faisal AliGhumman, The merits of tradition, 21.11.16
  • Zubeida Mustafa, Cotton crisis,, 24.06.16
  • Jacob Bunge and Biman Mukherji, Why Monsanto's biotech-food business isn't growing in India, www.linkedin .com, 13.03.16
  • Cotton comes under pink bollworm pest attack, The Hindu, 21.11.16
  • Lydia Mulvany, India cuts Monsanto modified cotton-seed royalty fees by 70%, Bloomberg, 9.03.16

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