Bt cotton seen as important alternative cash crop
- Rocel Felix () - February 20, 2005 - 12:00am
Genetically modified cotton or Bt cotton could be an important alternative cash crop for Filipino farmers.

The Cotton Development Administration (CODA) said there is definitely money to be made in planting Bt ((Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton, which was developed through genetic engineering.

CODA said many countries have already adopted Bt cotton and the results bolster hopes that the Philippines would in the near future also be in the same league of cotton farmers offshore that have raised their incomes and productivity. Currently, there are 16 Bt cotton producing countries, with the United States, China and India as leading producers and exporters.

In India where Bt cotton planting started in 2002, nine million hectares are grown annually, accounting for about 25 percent of the world’s total cotton area and 16 percent of global cotton production. Cotton farming in India contributes about 30 percent to the country’s gross domestic product.

CODA which is trying to revive the local cotton industry, said it expects investments by the private sector to reach P550 million with its implementation of a six-year development program for the sector.

Part of this program is its push for Bt cotton. CODA began testing the commercial viability of producing Bt cotton in its bid to increase local production and save on costly imports.

To kick off the program, the Philippine Rice Research Institute (Philrice) and CODA signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) wherein the two agencies will collaborate on the testing and evaluation of Bt cotton produced in selected sites nationwide. Philrice will provide shuttle research of Bt cotton in its biotech facilities in Muñoz, Nueva Ecija and other CODA research stations in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.

Bt cotton is now preferred over conventionally-bred varieties because it is resistant to the dreaded bollworm. Bt cotton contains a naturally-occurring substance called Bt protein which has revolutionized insect control.

CODA said this is significant because cotton farmers in the Philippines are spending a huge amount for pest control. A cotton farmer sprays insecticide eight to 11 times, and in the process of entailing high expenses, also endangers his environment with the use of toxic chemicals.

With Bt cotton farming however, CODA experts such as toxicologist Dr. Aida Solsoloy, and Dr. Edison C. Rinen, director of the Cotton Research Center, said planting the variety should be able to raise farm yield to 3,000 kilograms per hectare, while reducing pest control expenses to P1,600 from the current average of P6,400. This will enable farmers to net about P40,770 per hectate. Solsoloy said the higher cost of Bt cotton seed can be offset by the increase in yield and lower production costs.

This is possible because Bt cotton is resistant to cotton bollworm which even in countries like India where some farmers still continue to use conventional cotton seed varieties, have to contend with losses and lower production.

A recent study by R.M Benett, Y. Ismael, U Kambhampti and S. Morse of the University of Reading, Berkshire United Kingdom on the economic impact of genetically modified cotton in Maharashtra, a cotton-growing region in India, revealed that since its commercial release in 2002, Bt cotton has had a significant positive impact on yields and on the economic performance of cotton growers in the area.

Yields of Bt cotton were substantially higher compared to non-Bt varieties while the use of toxic insecticides was reduced significantly. Moreover, higher revenues were realized.

By adopting Bt cotton in the Philippines, CODA said this will enable the country to save on import costs since 95 percent of domestic demand at about $86 million annually,is still being supplied by foreign sources.

CODA is spearheading the task of resuscitating the cotton industry which went on a decline after record harvest in the 1991-1992 cotton season with hectarage shrinking to about 2,000 hectares. This also led to the closure of cotton ginneries with about 17 existing ginneries left idle.

Currently, only 4,921 hectares of farm lands are planted to cotton, as against the potential 150,000 hectares of land suitable to cotton production in the country. From 14 provinces, CODA is targeting to plant cotton in 25 provinces.

CODA administrator Eugenio Orpia said the cotton industry is starting to bounce back and its growth could accelerate further if Bt cotton planting is finally commercialized.

"Farm-level yield almost doubled from 678 kilograms per hectare to 1,220 while six new varieties were approved for commercialization since 1998. At the same time, we are putting in place measures such as providing a conducive environment to entice the private sector to go into cotton planting and production."

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