Bangladesh at final stage of introducing Bt cotton

Regulators give go-ahead to genetically-engineered cotton

Bangladesh is only second to China in exporting ready-made garments, fetching yearly earnings of over $35 billion. But the country has to pay up to $5 billion in import bills annually for its high import dependence on cotton – a key raw material for the apparels industry. 

By introducing high-yielding and pest-resistant Bt cotton – a genetically-engineered crop – in 2002, Bangladesh’s immediate neighbour India made a complete turnaround from a cotton importing country to an exporting country. Over the past two decades, India has emerged as the world’s number one exporter of cotton and also commands nearly a third of Bangladesh’s total import volume of the natural fibre.

After agonizingly long regulatory procedures, Bangladesh finally made an inroad on Thursday with regulators primarily agreeing to introduce Bt cotton in the country.

Once introduced, Bt cotton will be Bangladesh’s second GE after it introduced its first – Bt brinjal – back in 2013. The approval of another GE product – vitamin A-enriched Golden Rice – has been pending with regulators for the past four years.

Scientists and industry sources told Dhaka Tribune yesterday that the introduction of Bt cotton would usher in a new era in Bangladesh’s apparel sector by lessening dependence on imported cotton and helping growers earn more by growing more from the same cotton acreage, without requiring to apply toxic pesticides.

With low yield potential, Bangladesh’s homegrown cotton varieties produce only 3 tons of cotton per hectare.

On the other hand, two Bt lines that the regulators gave initial greenlight to would yield over 4 tons per hectare. On top of that, farmers would not be required to spray pesticides to fight bollworm, a moth larva that often causes colossal damage to cotton.

The Cotton Development Board’s (CDB) field experiments found that farmers would earn over Tk100,000 more from each hectare of Bt cotton compared to their earnings from the cultivation of traditional varieties.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently projected that Bangladesh would have to import nearly 9 million bales of cotton in 2022-23 against a paltry local production of 155,000 bales.

In the calendar year 2021, Indian cotton took 29% of the market share in Bangladesh, followed by Brazil, Benin and the United States.

Next steps

The Bangladesh National Technical Committee on Crop Biotechnology (BNTCCB), at a meeting yesterday, gave the go-ahead for two Bt cotton varieties, both sourced from the Hyderabad-based Indian company JK Agri Genetics.

Md Kamrul Islam, a CDB scientist involved with the Bt cotton introduction process, told this correspondent yesterday that after years of contained greenhouse trials, controlled field trials and multilocation trials in Bangladesh, the two Indian Bt varieties had been found to be suitable, profitable and ecofriendly for Bangladeshi cotton growers to cultivate.

Prior to Thursday’s meeting, chaired by the agriculture secretary, a series of discussions had been taking place since February this year at the BNTCCB Core Committee, which is led by the Executive Chairman of Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council (BARC), the apex body of Bangladesh’s national agricultural research system (NARS).

Representatives drawn from the scientific fraternity, academics and biosafety experts proffered the view that there were no health or any other safety issues involved and both fabrics and oil extracted from Bt cotton were as safe as non-Bt cotton.

Dr Rakha Hari Sarkar, who teaches botany at the University of Dhaka and also sits on the biosafety technical committee, told Dhaka Tribune that farmers could expect to grow the Bt cotton sometime soon once the National Committee on Biosafety (NCB) comes forth with the final approval.

Before trying the Indian Bt varieties, the CDB spent several years trying Bt varieties sourced from Wuhan’s Hubei Provincial Seed Group Company but later concluded that the Chinese ones were not suitable in Bangladesh conditions.

What’s Bt cotton

Bt cotton is a genetically-modified pest-resistant plant cotton variety, which produces an insecticide to combat bollworm. This has been developed through the insertion of a bacterium gene (Bacillus thuringqiensis or Bt) into cotton.

Bt cotton was first approved for field trials in the United States in 1993, and first approved for commercial use in the United States in 1995. It was approved by the Chinese government in 1997. India introduced Bt cotton in 2002, and by 2011, it emerged as the largest grower of genetically-engineered (GE) cotton with over 10 million hectares of acreage.

Currently, Bangladesh’s South Asian neighbours – India, Pakistan and Myanmar – all are growing Bt cotton, with India and Pakistan solidifying their positions among the top five exporters of the fibre.

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