New hope emerges for local cotton industry

() - January 3, 2010 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Agriculture officials are confident that the country’s adoption of the Bt cotton technology from China and India will help boost the local cotton industry and rev up Philippine agriculture in the next few years.

Bt cotton, which has the ability to resist the highly-destructive bollworm, will soon be available for commercial plantation as the Department of Agriculture (DA) through the Cotton Development Administration (CODA) steps up plans for the introduction of the genetically-engineered pest-resistant cotton variety in the Philippines soon, Agriculture undersecretary for policy and planning Segfredo Serrano revealed.

He said the CODA has planted transgenic hybrid cotton in one of its screen houses at the agency’s Cotton Research Center located in Batac City, Ilocos Norte as part of a project to commercially introduce Bt cotton varieties in the country.

The introduction of Bt cotton, like the Bt corn, aims to reduce losses because of infestation by pests - in this case the bollworm, which adversely affects cotton production.  

“The bollworm infestation of cotton plantations in the Philippines has been severely affecting the local cotton industry. Our biotech solution to this problem is the introduction of a superior variety that resists pests,” DA Biotechnology Program Office (DA-BPO) Director Alicia Ilaga said.

The DA BPO supports various research and development projects for “superior crops” that are disease-free, resistant to pests, and high- yielding crops such as corn, papaya, eggplant and other varieties through genetic engineering. The DA-BPO has been facilitating technology transfer, if not funding local research and development of disease-free and pest-resistant crops.

Under the strict supervision of the Biosafety Committee of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and the Bureau of Plant Industry- Quarantine Service, together with CODA Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC), six commercial transgenic cotton varieties imported from Nath Biogene (India) Ltd. were planted side by side with three locally-developed commercial non-Bt cotton varieties.

The contained experiment will evaluate the efficacy of the six Indian transgenic hy-brid cotton varieties that contains the Chi-na-developed fused Bt genes in controlling bollworm under local environments. Limited field trials will be conducted in CODA’s experiment stations and selected farms in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao within the next one or two cotton seasons.

The transgenic hybrid cotton or Bt cotton in the trial contains the fused Bt-genes cry 1Ab/cry 1Ac that provides the plant a high degree of protection against cotton boll-worm (Helicoverpa armigera Hubn.), the most significant pest of cotton. In Asia, Bt cotton is already planted largely in China and India.

Bollworm is a great threat to local cotton farming. The pest attacks the cotton plant as early as the vegetative stage feeding on the leaf terminals, fruit buds, flowers, and developing bolls.

Current control measure is predominantly through chemical insecticides. Aside from being costly and hazardous to humans and the environment, the pesticide-based management scheme does not guarantee full protection from the target pest. Local farmers spray chemicals 8-10 times, which cost them about 43 percent of the total production cost, yet lose 30-65 percent of their potential yields.

Four years ago, CODA inked a memorandum of agreement with the BioCentury Transgene Co. (China) Ltd. to conduct Bt cotton testing in the country as approved by Agriculture Secretary Arthur C. Yap.

Funds for the project came from the DA Biotech Program Office (BPO), headed by Ilaga.

The project, however, was stalled, according to CODA Administrator Orpia by regulatory procedures at the source country, which is China then later, India.

“Nevertheless, we are finally rolling the very first Bt cotton test in the country after a long wait and we are confident that we shall be commercializing the Bt cotton three seasons later, at the least. Our goal is to provide the local cotton industry a viable alternative cotton variety which provides farmers a higher profit from a technology that requires cheaper cost of producing high quality cotton fiber besides environment-friendly“ Orpia reiterated.

The Philippines consumes an average of 40,000 metric tons of lint per annum valued at P3 billion, a volume that is almost entirely – 97 percent – imported, primarily from the USA.

While the country has a favorable soil and climate to grow cotton, the local industry has been enduring a major setback due to various socio-economic and technical factors with the bollworm problem as the most critical.

The commercialization of Bt cotton locally is expected to provide the turning point for the cotton sector to recover and enhance the country’s competitiveness in the global arena.

It will significantly reduce the cost of production while it increases yield. Besides, cotton is a feasible alternative dry season crop grown after rice. It is also adapted to dry and marginal or saline areas where water is a limiting factor.

This agricultural biotechnology product is a feasible import substitute that will save the country from costly cotton importation.

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