Monday, September 14, 2009

Bt cotton or Organic cotton?

Suman Sahai
A multi-agency group involving government departments and trading bodies as well as the industry has been set up under the aegis of the Textiles Ministry to promote organic cotton in the country. If the Textiles Ministry promoting organic cotton and the Department of Biotechnology promoting genetically engineered Bt cotton are at odds with each other and working at cross purposes, it should not surprise anyone, since it is the norm rather than the exception for government departments to work in isolation, without any coordination and in ways that contradict each other. This is not the first case in which the proverbial left hand does not know what the right hand is doing, nor will it be the last.

Organic produce and genetically engineered produce are mutually self excluding commodities. A country can chose to go either way for a given product but not both. But that does not stop the Government of India from bumbling along in two contradictory directions, one arm promoting a product that will cancel out the markets of the other. If Bt cotton were to contaminate traces of organic cotton, the consignments of organic cotton would lose the certification that would get them the premium price advantage and be rejected by markets interested in buying organic cotton.

Although coexistence of GM and non-GM produce has been mooted as a possible way to reconcile two contradicting situations, in reality it has never worked. The fact is that it is impossible to keep agricultural produce like cotton or rice or strawberries apart once they are ready for the market. Bt and organic cotton are as bound to get mixed up as are Bt rice and organic rice. Gene Watch, UK, and Greenpeace maintain a register of instances where genetically engineered crops have contaminated conventional or organic crops. The contamination cases run into hundreds across the world, often with grave economic consequences. Not so long ago, consignments of US rice exported to several countries had to be recalled because traces of GM rice was found in rice that was declared as conventional, non GM rice. The cost of recall was prohibitive but the greater damage was done to America's future rice exports. Once countries returned the contaminated US rice, other rice exporting nations like Thailand entered the newly available markets in Europe, Japan and South Korea and established themselves there.

The new organic cotton agency has set itself the task of preparing a road map to increase the production of organic cotton in the country, without taking a view on what is to happen to the promotion of Bt cotton, which it acknowledges to be inimical to the growth of the sector they are advancing. If government sources and Monsanto are to be believed, Bt cotton has taken over a very large percentage of the cotton growing area in India. So is the organic cotton agency a story without a future? Or should India stand back from Bt cotton and present a range of organic cotton products to the world?

India is home to a large diversity in cotton. It cultivates the arboreum, the hirsutum and the barbadense cottons. Not many would associate the North-East of India with cotton, but the famed arboreum cotton of the Garo Hills in present Meghalaya was well known for its large, elongated bolls and strong fibres. Apart from the genetic diversity, there exists a great deal of indigenous knowledge about the cultivation of cotton and the processing of the fibre into fabric. Remember, cotton is an ancient Indian product, its quality famed and desired through the ancient world. There have been attempts to grow cotton with naturally coloured fibres so that the fabric does not have to be dyed. This approach is in line with organic cotton. Cotton is well understood in India. Organic cotton would be its USP because of a combination of past and present skills. And then there is the market.

The Cotton Advisory Board has set up this special organic cotton group to take advantage of the rapidly growing market for textiles made from organic cotton. Such textiles command a premium price in countries of Europe and in the US and Japan. The global market for organic cotton is growing by as much as 150 per cent per year, going by last year's figures. India is the No.1 producer of organic cotton in the world, followed by Syria, Turkey and China. It would make sense for India to follow the route of organic cotton where it is already a market leader in a product for which an assured market exists already and is growing. The story of cotton in India must be scripted by the ground reality of the market.

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