Bangladesh, the second largest apparel exporting nation, has to pay up to $5 billion annually to import cotton – a key raw material for the textile and apparels industry. The country produced only 1.77 lakh bales of cotton last year.
The quantity is insufficient to meet the demand of even a single spinning mill which leads the country to import all the required cotton from abroad. This is the way how Bangladesh has become one of the largest cotton importers.
To come out from this situation Bangladesh has aimed to produce 1 million bales of cotton by the end of 2025.
“We have a target to meet 10 percent of our annual demand from domestic growers by the end of 2025,” Mehdi Ali, General Secretary of Bangladesh Cotton Association (BCA), said.
Three major local groups — Ispahani, Amber and Square — began contract farming of cotton in different districts, mainly to reduce dependence on cotton imports.
A projection made by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently said that Bangladesh would have to import nearly 9 million bales of cotton in 2022-23.
You may know that by introducing high-yielding and pest-resistant Bt cotton – a genetically-engineered crop – in 2002, India made a complete U-turn 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. Not only that almost a third of Bangladesh’s total import volume of the natural fibre comes from India!
After long regulatory procedures, at last Bangladesh has made a decision on 16 June with regulators primarily agreeing to introduce Bt cotton in the country.
If it is finally introduced then 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.
According to the scientists and industry sources, 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 whereas two Bt lines that the regulators gave initial greenlight to would yield over 4 tons per hectare.
More interestingly, 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.
Bt cotton is genetically altered by the insertion of genes from a common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, to produce certain proteins that are toxic to specific insects. Currently available Bt cotton varieties produce either or both crystal (Cry) and vegetative insecticidal proteins (Vip) that target specific caterpillar pests such as beet armyworm, cotton bollworm, and tobacco budworm.
Initially, Bt cotton provided a means to effectively manage pests, such as tobacco budworm and pink bollworm, that were difficult to control or had developed resistance to commonly used insecticides. Since then, Bt cotton has been instrumental in providing control of other pests, including beet armyworm, bollworm, fall armyworm, and loopers. The use of Bt cotton has reduced the need for foliar insecticides targeting these pests and has also reduced outbreaks of secondary pests.
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 neighbors – India, Pakistan and Myanmar – all are growing Bt cotton, with India and Pakistan solidifying their positions among the top five exporters of the fibre.
Bt cotton’s journey in Bangladesh
The approved two Bt cotton varieties will be sourced from the Hyderabad-based Indian company JK Agri Genetics.
After years of controlled 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.
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 offered 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.
Before trying the Indian Bt varieties, the CDB spent several years trying Bt varieties sourced from Wuhan’s Hubei Provincial Seed Group Company. However, the Chinese Bt varieties were not suitable in Bangladesh conditions, according to the Cotton Development Board.