EghtesadOnline: Cotton is set to be the first genetically-modified crop authorized for cultivation in Iran. Earlier in the current Iranian year (started March 21), the National Biosafety Council, chaired by First Vice President Es’haq Jahangiri, approved the "release" of genetically-modified cotton, as biotechnologists put it, after it is approved by responsible bodies, including the ministries of agriculture and health.
“Local researchers at the Agriculture Biotechnology Research Institute of Iran, affiliated to the Agriculture Ministry, have gained the technical know-how to produce the seeds of GM cotton," Nayyer-Azam Khoshkholq-Sima, the head of ABRII, told Financial Tribune.
"The project to produce GM cottonseeds was kicked off at ABRII in 1379 [fiscal 2000-01], but it came to a halt after facing roadblocks. Due to the agriculture minister’s demand for curbing the import of GM crops, ABRII made an official request in 1393 [fiscal 2014-15] for authorizing the cultivation of genetically-modified cotton in the country.”
The GM cottonseeds produced in Iran, she explained, are similar to those used in other countries for cultivation as well as human and animal consumption, according to Financial Tribune.
“The Agriculture Ministry has been tasked with surveying the project’s natural resources and agricultural considerations. The Health Ministry is responsible for evaluating possible risks in the fields of food, cosmetics and toiletries. Last but not least, the Department of Environment shoulders the responsibility of carrying out risk assessments for the project regarding wildlife and environment," she said.
Khoshkholq-Sima noted that the Health Ministry and DOE have already submitted the results of their assessments to the Agriculture Ministry, which has approved the plan's implementation after making its own evaluations of the reports.
"At present, the project is going through bureaucratic procedures, I presume. We are ready to cultivate the seeds in the coming crop year, as soon as the permit is granted,” she said.
Missing Share From Global GM Crops Market
According to Mokhtar Jalali-Javaran, a representative of scientific unions in the Biosafety Council and a member of Iranian Genetics Society, Iran imports around $5 billion worth of genetically-modified crops every year.
“GM soybeans, corn and colza account for most of this sum. What Iran takes away from the sizable market of genetically-modified agricultural products is only imports. This is while Brazil, for example, generates revenues as much as Iran’s annual non-oil exports from this market every year," he said.
"As of 2016, some 180 million hectares of farms were under the cultivation of GM crops worldwide. More than 120 countries are now consumers of these products. Japan is the biggest importer of GM agro products.”
Jalali-Javaran, who is a faculty member at the Biotechnology Department of Tehran’s Tarbiat Modares University, said it has not been scientifically proven that genetically-modified products are entirely non-hazardous, while stressing that "this does not imply biotechnology should be set aside for good".
"In fact, we should reap the many benefits of biotechnology," he added.
Jalali-Javaran said the project is economically justified in that the GM cottonseeds produced in the country are pest resistant.
"The resistance is mainly to cotton bollworm, which makes frequent visits to cotton plantations and causes extensive damage. The pest-resistant GM cottonseed means the farm’s need for pesticides is either significantly reduced or eliminated altogether. This lowers expenses in addition to the risk of possible damage to the environment and increases yields, which in turn improves farmers’ earnings," he said.
"On top of that, when there’s more harvest and productivity increases, the downstream textile industry, which is a lucrative business, will flourish. This holds an extensive capacity for job creation across the supply chain from the farm to factory, dyeing and weaving units, apparel production and sales outlets.”
The faculty member noted that there is a negative mindset in Iran, in the society and media alike, regarding genetically-modified products.
“Those who manipulate the public opinion about GM crops never support their claims with proven documents or scientific studies. More often than not, they distort facts and mix them with superstition to serve their own interests," he said.
"It is interesting to know that many of the medicines used daily by people are produced by applying methods of biotechnology, called red biotechnology, to these products. Some 40% of our exported medicines are actually recombinants. But when it comes to green biotechnology, which is biotechnological methods applied to agriculture, we see such extreme standpoints."
Jalali-Javaran said the technology to produce GM crops in Iran is going through study procedures step by step and by considering all related safety and health aspects.
"The onus is on specialists in the field to inform the public of the reality about GM crops and what has been proven so far. We need to adopt a scientific and academic viewpoint about these products,” he said.
No Environmental Risks
Samira Kahak, secretary of DOE’s Biosafety Taskforce and a member of the board of directors at the Biosafety Society of Iran, said that after taking all precautions and completing the evaluations and surveys conducted by ABRII, the taskforce reached the conclusion that the GM cottonseed produced by the institute poses no environmental risks.
“The Biosafety Taskforce made evaluations regarding the gene flow, its weediness [the possibility of the inadvertent dispersion of the plant in the ecosystem], and its effects on non-target organisms,” he said.
Back to Heyday
According to Mohammad Hossein Kaviani, the head of Iran Cotton Fund, it is estimated that 40,000 tons of refined cotton will be produced in Iran during the current Iranian year (March 2018-19), registering a 28.6% decline compared to last year.
“Our initial projection was the production of 55,000 tons of the product, yet our cotton plantations were damaged by the cotton bollworm as well as a dry spell this year,” he said in another telephone interview.
Iran’s annual demand for refined cotton, according to the official, stands at 110,000 tons, give or take 20,000 tons.
“During the first five months of the current Iranian year (March 21-Aug. 22), we imported 36,000 tons of refined cotton. Over the next three months, only 8,000 tons were imported due to obstacles caused by fluctuations in foreign exchange rates and new regulations. We need an additional 23,000 tons by the yearend to adequately meet the entire domestic demand. Yet, it’s very probable that this won’t come true due to the aforementioned problems. This means that we will be facing shortage in the coming year," he said.
The official said Iran was an exporter of cotton before the 80s.
“In the northern Golestan Province alone, we had 180,000 hectares of cotton plantations that produced 135,000 tons of cotton. This has reduced to 11,000 hectares today. Close to 100,000 tons of exports used to be made from Golestan to 23 countries,” he said.
Kaviani believes that Iran has the capacity to become self-sufficient in cotton production once again.
“Advancements made in science and technology, which help develop new varieties, coupled with proper planning in the area, can help us make a comeback to our heydays. In this respect, GM cotton can be of great help. Pest-resistant seeds will yield copiously compared to what we have now, enabling us to meet domestic demand and run our cotton and textile factories at full capacity,” he concluded.