Destruction of the Cotton Harvest: A Golden Opportunity for Transnational Corporations?

 Dr. Azra Talat Sayeed

In Pakistan, newspapers have been rife with news on the pink bollworm attack on the cotton harvest this year. The scenario is indeed disastrous on many accounts. Of course, the very first in line to be caught in the destruction are Pakistan’s millions of small farmers. With cotton being a major cash crop, millions rely on the cotton harvest to provide them with a sizeable amount of their income. In fact, they go heavily into debt to not only buy the cottonseed but also very expensive fertilizers and the many types of pesticides that are sprayed on cotton, without which conventional or genetically modified seeds will not yield a harvest. According to small farmers from Multan and Sahiwal, nearly 90 percent of crop has been destroyed. For farmers who have leased land their loss per acre is approximately Rs 40,000 in Multan. For those, who have their own land loss is about Rs 20,000 per acre.

Another critical point is the amount of pesticides that have been used on the cotton crop this year. A newspaper advisory from the government mentions the ‘correct’ use of pesticides that farmer should be applying on cotton. That is indeed ironical: one of the hypes used for promotion of Bt cotton has been its ability to ward off pest attack. But this year the attack of pink bollworms has put to rest this myth, at least.

For those of us who have long critiqued the promotion of genetically modified seeds one does not know whether to rejoice the failure of the harvest or to mourn the loss of livelihood and further ecological harm that this crop has been able to havoc on the environment?

There are farmers who also feel that this failure can be beneficial to gigantic seed corporations who thrive on their patented very expensive seeds. Next year would be an ideal year for seed giants such as Monsanto to insist on selling very expensive branded Bt Cotton.

According to a farmer from a small farmers alliance namely Pakistan Kissan Mazdoor Tehreek (PKMT), this could be a golden opportunity for the push to change from cotton to corn sowing. As we all know, corn is being used for making ethanol. Pioneer, another American company has been promoting the use of certain branded corn varieties that are used for animal feed. The animal dung from these animals yield higher urea content and is considered to be a good source of biogas.

What is the cost of these branded seeds? An example is of hybrid corn seeds in the market. Seeds by Pioneer, Syngenta and Monsanto are priced at Rs 5,500 to Rs 6,000 per 10 kg which is what is needed per acre. The ‘beauty of these seeds is that none of them give seed for next year cultivation. Hence the farmer has to buy seeds every year. This was the main pivot for pushing for intellectual property rights on seeds under the TRIPs agreement in the WTO.

At the moment all cottonseed in the market is being sold with out trade marks. For one kilogram of cotton seed the price can vary from Rs 300 to Rs 1500/kg. If women sow seed by hand than at least 3 kg seed is needed; if seed drills are used than 5-8 kg is used. Of course if patented cotton seed is introduced next year, the reason for passing the Amended Seed Act 2015, then there is no doubt that cotton seed costs will jump sky high.

So indeed, the cotton crop failure this year could be exactly the kind of situation that the multinational corporations have been advocating: substandard seed is the cause of the current catostrope. However, it needs to be pointed out that Bt Cotton has suffered a similar fate in India where Bt Cotton seed is very much under patent protection. The Nagpur-based Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) has confirmed the pink bollworm resistance to Monsanto’s second-generation biotechnology protection Bollgard-II in some parts of Indian Gujarat

So on one hand Pakistan’s agriculture faces crop failure due to malfunctioning hybrid and GM seeds although the corporations continue the propaganda that patented seeds will not give very high yields. On the hand, crop pattern in itself is changing: there is increasing push to grow sugar cane ethanol. According to OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook, Pakistan has increased it ethanol production from 97.2 million litres in 2004 to 321.8 million litres in 2014. Based on newspaper reporting much of the ethanol in Pakistan is being sent to Europe.

There is every chance that corn will also gain ground for ethanol and/or as feed and urea production. If indeed, western countries in their ‘addiction’ to energy are looking for markets for not only their seeds but also land for growing ethanol, then Pakistan’s agricultural production is most probably fall back on colonial production and trade patterns.  We will be once again a cash crop supplier to Europe and other rich nations, as in the days of colonization.

Do our farmers want to be energy suppliers to the oil-guzzling vehicle industry in the North? What about food for our people? What is the cost of producing clean energy for Northern ‘democracies’? What are the chances for equitable land distribution in this current scenario? Will the landlords not be even more strong now? And of course the onslaught of land grabbing will certainly gain momentum to gain maximum profits from oil producing crops not to mention other lucrative corporate agriculture ventures? In how many more ways are we going to suffer from the imperialist nations’ constant plundering from our soils?

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