SOUTH KAZAKHSTAN REGION – Agriculture is one of Kazakhstan’s priority economic sectors for the coming decades. General Director of the Kazakh Scientific Research Institute of Cotton Growing Ibadullah Umbetayev discussed the industry’s problems and prospects.
The head of state has put special emphasis on the development of drought-tolerant, genetically modified crops. What is your vision of the future of genetically modified crops?
At the end of last year, I took part in the 72nd plenary meeting of the International Cotton Advisory Committee in the Colombian city of Cartagena, where they discussed prospects for using genetically modified cotton seeds around the world. The conference brought together representatives from more than 60 countries engaged in the production, trade and processing of cotton, including from Pakistan, Turkey, Brazil, India, Colombia and the United States. These discussions convinced me of the need to introduce biotechnologies.
This is especially important in view of Kazakhstan’s accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). We are among the countries that cultivate cotton, but do not use Bt cotton [a genetically modified strain of cotton produced by the Monsanto company that produces its own insecticide]. … Meanwhile, since the mid-1990s, cotton has become one of the leading genetically modified crops and cotton biotechnology is beating popularity records in the history of the industry.
What are the benefits of Bt cotton compared with traditionally cultivated varieties?
First of all, it is its immunity against pests and herbicide tolerance. The first varieties with two independently acting Bt genes appeared in the U.S. and Australia four years ago. These varieties provide better productivity and greater elasticity of fibre. Additionally, independent research shows that millions of farmers in China, South Africa and India gained significant socioeconomic and environmental benefits as well as advantages in health protection as a result of growing of Bt cotton. Kazakhstan can receive the same benefits.
And although resistance to pests and herbicide tolerance are the only characteristic of Bt cotton, scientists have developed a wide range of other characteristics … that may directly affect agronomic activities, [including] tolerance of various stresses, fibre quality and yield. In addition to resistance to insects and herbicide tolerance, this biotechnology is applied to fighting disease and improving resistance to nematodes or various environmental stresses such as heat, cold [and] drought, which may ultimately increase productivity. And finally, this biotechnology is used to modify the quality of cotton fibre by influencing the fibre’s length, colour and strength, which is essential for the textile industry.
I must say that today there is no confirmed information that genetically modified agricultural products are harmful to human health. Like any new technology, Bt cotton both brings potential benefits and has a degree of risk. We never know in advance everything about a new technology and therefore we cannot accurately predict the long-term consequences. The main requirement in the introduction of Bt cotton is finding acceptable, scientifically sound methods to assess risk, including risks to human health and the environment, and weigh them against potential benefits. Carefully conducted evaluations revealed no risk to human health from Bt cotton varieties or products derived from them, while the experiences of the countries that cultivate Bt cotton indicate its significant economic and social and environmental benefits.
But most important is the fact that an increasing number of socioeconomic indicators confirm the view that Bt cotton can contribute to the profitability of farmers and bring significant benefits to society as a whole.
In your opinion, how should countries decide to develop and apply cotton biotechnology?
All countries should make their own decisions on the use of Bt cotton or other modern biotechnology products, regardless of philosophical, ideological or economic pressure from outside. Free access to varieties of Bt cotton requires a combination of political will and financial resources to ensure a rigorous, transparent and efficient regulatory process: professional production and delivery of Bt seeds, training of farmers, as well as the creation of a favourable business environment.
We need to develop a scientifically based, accurate, mobile programme of state regulation that is harmonised with the cotton-growing ecosystem of southern Kazakhstan. It is necessary to conduct large-scale scientific research to test and determine the best technology in grades of Bt-cotton, which prove them well in the local conditions. But first, we should create technical-promoting groups to train farmers and support the use of new technology.
I’d like to note once again that upon accession to the WTO, the domestic cotton industry will not be able to compete in the world market without the use of advanced technologies. Today Bt-cotton occupies more than 75 percent of the total area of cotton in the world. Argentina, Australia, China, Colombia, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Mexico, the U.S. and South Africa account for 90 percent of the world’s cotton fibre. The figures are quite eloquent and need no comment.