NOTE: This is a big story in Pakistan and seems to reflect increasing scepticism in the media about the value of Bt cotton. See also:
Is Pakistan on the right path on Bt cotton?
Naufil Shahrukh 
Weekly Pulse, December 16 2011

Cotton remains the second most significant crop in Pakistan after wheat and is the main foreign exchange earning cash crop for us. Our textile industry requires around 2-3 million bales annually to meet its production demands so we import it from India and other places as per requirements. To meet the deficit, the policy makers thought it is imperative that we increase the cotton crop yield and save foreign exchange. Currently we produce on an average between 12-14 million bales. Genetically modified or Bt Cotton was proposed as an option to explore. 

A small U.S based, hi-tech or GM Seed and traits company (Monsanto) initially offered Bollgard-1 (BG-1) technology to Pakistan. It later turned out that the company’s patent for this purpose had expired and it was forced to accept this. In a letter written to the Punjab government, its (Monsanto's) Country Head acknowledged this fact. Prior to this, the government was ready to sign an agreement with Monsanto which would have resulted in payment of 'technology fees' to Monsanto worth billions of rupees! Once this information became public knowledge as a result of this letter, the Punjab government rightly called off negotiations in 2008 and ultimately did not sign the proposed agreement on 'BG-1 technology'. This saved the national and provincial exchequer significant money and adopting an outdated technology. Interestingly, Bollgard-1 cotton seeds were being grown in Pakistan since 2004-5 and seemed the bureaucrats negotiating with the US company were unaware of this. 

In 2008, the same company came up with a new proposal that it will bring the upgraded Bollgard-2 cotton seed technology. The genetic modification in a cotton seed is that Bollgard-1 seed has a Cry-1AC gene introgressed in addition to its natural genetic make-up and it is effective against Pink, Spotted and American Bollworms or 'Sundee'. The toxin from this gene, tears apart the guts of the Bollworms. Bollgard-2 seed has a gene Cry-2AB in addition to Cry-1AC and is effective against Army Bollworms or 'Sundee' in addition to the previous three. So basically, the bollgard-2 is a minor up gradation to the original Bollgard-1 seed technology. 

The company proposed that since Pakistan has weak 'Intellectual Property Rights' or IPRs therefore, it needed Government protection or 'Back-stop' to succeed in Pakistan as 'unscrupulous' elements could copy or replicate its Bollgard-2 technology. It signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the then Federal Ministry of Food & Agriculture in April, 2010 which envisaged that provincial governments of the Punjab and possibly Sindh should sign agreements with the company. In brief, the company would sell the Bollgard-2 seeds in the market however, in case people copied or replicated the technology or grew 'saved' seeds, a third party will be engaged which will conduct a survey to see how much seed was sold by the company in the market and the remaining quantity would be classified as 'unpaid' seed. The company indulges in similar practices in the US and Canada where it has sued scores of farmers for ‘saved seeds’. 

Government was then to pay the company an amount of 21 U.S dollars per acre for the 'unpaid' acres as ‘compensation for losses’, royalty and ‘backstop’ agreements. Practically, it could mean that in Punjab, if such a survey 'proved' that 4 million acre worth of seed was sold by Monsanto and 2 million was 'unauthorized' or obtained/grown through other channels, Monsanto would be paid 21 U.S dollars per acre for those two million acres! This would mean a sum of US dollars 42000000/- will be paid to the company by the government every year. Nowhere in the world does such 'government backstop' guarantees or arrangement exists. 

At this point in time in fact, even mandatory regulatory field trials were not complete when the MOU was signed in April, 2010. So there was no way to know, whether this technology would increase cotton yield in Pakistan or not! But some elements within Punjab bureaucracy, continuously tried to get the agreement signed for this technology between Monsanto and the Punjab Government.

In November, 2010, bureaucracy almost managed to get the Monsanto proposal approved by the Punjab Government. However, the Chief Minister Punjab came to know about the relevant issues and stepped in to prevent a hasty decision. It was learnt that Bollgard-1 and 2 technology is completely ineffective against Cotton Leaf Curl Virus (CLCuV), White Fly and Mealy Bugs. These pests are the main reason why Pakistan Cotton crop loses 2-3 million bales every year. Thus, while the company would have been selling the seeds and making money through Government ‘compensation’ and sovereign guarantees every year, the real problems were still there and the ‘latest technology’ would have cost the Punjab government between 30-70 million U.S dollars every year with no guarantees of yield increase. The regulatory trials by this company in 2010, proved its technology was ineffective against the main pests (CLCuV etc) in Pakistan.

It seems that non-technical persons started evaluation of the Bollgard technology in Pakistan and therefore, could not properly handle the situation. For instance, it could not realize that how much yield increase would happen and negotiated with the company without the benefits of actual field trial results in Pakistani agro-climatic conditions. They also failed to see the actual perspective in the claims of high yields due to Bollgard-2 technology in India. Fact is that per acre Indian cotton yield is lower. It grows hybrid seeds while we use varietal seeds and India has rain dependent cotton while we have virtually 100% irrigated cotton. Also Bollworms instance in the cotton field is far higher in India than Pakistan. So comparing Indian cotton with Pakistan is like comparing apples with oranges.

Many competent persons are working in our research and development sector. Institutes of cotton research like CCRI Multan, NIBGE and NIAB at Faisalabad, and others are established research outlets. These have produced results and given Pakistan, cotton seed varieties which have been acknowledged as high yielding and world class. Instead of hankering after commercial seed companies and side tracking the R&D system in Pakistan, we should be looking to collaborate with eminent global institutes and try to gather knowledge rather than marketing tools.

We need to move forward, adopt agricultural technology but after proper evaluation and with involvement of the relevant technical people during this process. Marketing and seed companies are required to run the commercial side of the business but not be allowed to propagate marketing messages and hijack the agenda. Regulatory process must be independent of the involvement of commercial seed sector whether local or multinationals.