Corrupting our cotton

Corruption does not merely involve kickbacks, bribes, commissions, embezzlement, unsanctioned perks and privileges, fictitious overheads and expenditures, skimming, misappropriation and outright theft. It also involves the corruption of products and production methods, falsely claimed as superior, as means and justification to hike prices and profits.
This is particularly true of certain staple crops, both food and non-food, dubbed degradingly as ‘commodities’, yet globally indispensable. The top non-food crop that continues to be corrupted is cotton. Being among the top cotton-producing countries, Pakistan has much to gain by growing it properly the way it was in the past, and everything to lose through so-called ‘modern’ methods.
Today, while innumerable farmers worldwide including in America, fight back against chemicalised, industrial farming because it not only mangles the living, biological requisites of agriculture, but also appropriates farmland into centralized, corporate hands, eliminating livelihoods by the hundreds of millions, Pakistani official agri-scientists are trying to uphold corporate control.
It was bad enough that the west replaced manure and compost with chemical fertilizer and other traditional practices to slash labour costs – leading to high loss of rural livelihoods. In Pakistan, chemicals came some 50 years ago with the mislabeled ‘green revolution’ that turned brown.
Cotton has always attracted pests that find it delicious. — Which is why traditional farmers never grew it as a monocrop. They instead intercropped cotton with certain foodcrops that pests found even more delicious – to be sufficiently distracted away from the cotton. There were also plenty of safe, natural pesticides sprays made from indigenous plants. That way, with good planning, farmers saved their cotton as well as gained foodcrops: pests could eat only so much.
In the last 70 years, cotton has become the world’s most chemically-sprayed crop. The more chemicals were sprayed on them, the more the pests built up resistance – nature is made that way. Farmers weren’t told pests would keep proliferating. As farmers kept increasing spraying volumes to combat them, it brought untold corporate profits through ignorant dependency on chemicals.
A point came when chemicals stopped working altogether. To avoid losing out, the chemical corporations turned to ‘non-chemical’ methods – tampering with the biology of the cotton plant itself through genetic modification, so that pests that ate it would be poisoned to death.
Bt cotton was thus invented by introducing the gene of a soil organism known as Bt, directly into cotton. In its natural condition, Bt appears seasonally when cotton matures, destroying pests that consume it. Monsanto took the Bt microorganism out of the soil and stuck it into the cotton plant where it didn’t belong, making it an unwanted extension of its biology. A freak monster plant, so to speak.
Since Bt made entire plants poisonous including the stalk and leaves, livestock could no longer be allowed to graze the healthy fodder of leftover plants in harvested fields. Indian farmers discovered that the hard way after an entire herd of cattle and sheep died. Henceforth farmers had to buy or grow separate feed for livestock!
After farmers belatedly discovered that Bt cotton didn’t eliminate need for chemicals as falsely claimed, Monsanto changed tactics. They now guaranteed that Bt cotton would be pest, herbicide and drought-tolerant (the last to supposedly deal with climate change). That tall claim brought in its wake proliferation of “superweeds’, and “superpests” which were previously manageable, such as bollworms.
The corporations, reluctant to release their stranglehold over the global cotton industry and unreasonable profits, remained stubborn. Finally admitting that resistance was indeed a problem, corporate scientists claimed having resolved it with a new variety of GM cotton every few years, by switching or adding a gene or two – which accounts for the constantly changing and confusing labels and number tags given. But also by giving Pakistan what’s already been banned in Europe.
Needless to say, they didn’t work. Nor did Pakistan’s own experiments – despite spending almost a billion rupees through some 18 different agricultural research institutions and agencies.
Pakistan still doesn’t have bio-safety laws let alone independent laboratories with trained staff to monitor and evaluate the impacts of GM on the soil, environment, pollination, people and livestock. The concerned scientists, led by Cotton Commissioner Khalid Abdullah, were preoccupied being courted by Monsanto, taken with journalists on all-paid-for travel junkets abroad, and photographically celebrated on websites. Since Monsanto’s arrival in Pakistan, they acted more like sales representatives rather than in the public interest.
The reality is that, if enough poison is used, it kills. If enough isn’t used, it will do damage anyway. So Pakistan had a problem. Bt cotton varieties developed here didn’t have sufficient toxins to begin with! So crops failed.
But, according to Monsanto, it was never their fault. It was always the farmer’s fault. He didn’t follow instructions correctly, and so on. In Pakistan, they said the floods were to blame. Except that this year, the floods did NOT affect most of our cotton-growing area.
The toxic buildup over years is enormous. In a few years, sensitive microorganisms in the soil die out. Every year, a million or more farmworkers worldwide are hospitalized because of pesticide poisoning. A single cotton T-shirt represents 1 kg of chemicals used. Now even non-farmers are affected. Consumer complaints of rashes and other skin problems are rising because of clothing made of GM cotton.
Cotton used to bring bonuses with it. Such as the excess cottonseed which is used as animal feed as well as cooking oil. Thanks to GM cotton, it is no longer safe for either human or animal consumption.
When Pakistan does not have independent laboratories and trained staff and no bio-safety laws whatsoever, how can it monitor and control conditions that risk our cotton crops, farmlands and human health? It can’t, especially since the Bio-safety Centre Project ended in June this year after achieving nothing. According to insiders, Mr. Raja Abbas, the former chairman of the autonomous National Biosafety Committee was transferred because he did not approve any of the dubious GM seeds. Neither did Ms Rukhsana Saleem MNA, who briefly replaced him until her retirement. But the Committee remains under strong political pressure.
99 percent of the world’s cotton farmworkers, almost all low-income, live in South (developing) countries. They produce 75% of the world’s cotton. The most important non-food crop for most of the world (whether they grow it or not) is cotton. In other words, the world needs us, but agrochemical and GM seed corporations, colonial-like, are aggressively trying to take over.
Strangely, the Pakistan’s Environmental Protection Agency as well as the Bio Safety Committee were placed under the Ministry for Climate Change — as if environmental matters concern only climate change! But then, Monsanto claims inventing climate-combating seeds as well! The Climate Change Ministry is now a Division, directly under the Prime Minister (it was Mr. Shahbaz Sharif who pushed hard for approval of GM/Bt cotton).
Our government finally acknowledges that 80 percent of the cotton-growing area is already of Bt cotton – achieved without ever being approved for use. Our indigenous cotton has been corrupted, but it couldn’t have happened if the policies, sanctions and procedures were not corrupted first. This year, output has fallen short and the cotton sowing area has declined. It’s still not too late to recover, provided GM seeds of all crops are banned altogether. But that may take more than old, discredited political will; it may need change of government.

The writer is a former journalist and currently director  of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a     rights and dvocacy group.

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