ISLAMABAD: The country is heading for commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) crops, in the absence of a strong regulatory system, trained staff and well-equipped laboratory to deal with the issues involved, according to an officer.
“The government is handicapped, from field testing to approval and finally, commercialisation of GM crops,” an official of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council told Dawn.
Worse, the government depends entirely on data provided by applicants (producers of GM crops in Pakistan) who evaluate, monitor, discuss, regulate and approve GM crops for sale to farmers.
“This also explains why relaxations are given outside the law to GM seed producers who have been unable to meet established standards,” the official said, elaborating how toxin levels in genetically modified Bt cotton had been reduced, leading to new kinds of pests.
He also gave the example of a reduction of the germination level from 75 per cent (in accordance with the Seed Act of 1976) to less than 50pc, which significantly increased the cost of production for farmers.
According to the Bio-safety Guidelines and Rules of 2005, representatives of various departments of the textile ministry, including the Central Cotton Research Institute in Multan, Pakistan Central Cotton Committee in Karachi and Cotton Crop Assessment Committee; the PARC, the Federal Seed Certification and Registration Department of the Ministry of National Food Security and Research; the Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology and Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, Faisalabad, of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission; the Punjab agriculture department and the Ministry of Science and Technology are members of a Technical Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Science and Technology and the National Bio-safety Committee (NBC) which approves commercialisation of GM seeds.
“It is because of involvement of all these organisations that the NBC’s requirements and bio-safety standards are compromised when it comes to designing, monitoring, implementing and enforcing rules and regulations concerning GM crops,” said Asif Shuja, a former director general of the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency who had time and again recommended that neutral members should be included in the NBC to verify data on GM crops.
“What used to bother me was how the Technical Advisory Committee never debated GM crops and nobody used to be concerned about their impact on the local environment,” he said.
A former secretary of the Climate Change Division, Raja Hasan Abbas, said: “The membership of the NBC should be widened and environment experts and health scientists should be included in it for transparency.”
The NBC has been functioning without plant breeders, bio-safety experts, entomologists, agronomists, ecologists, biochemists, microbiologists, and other qualified staff not only to independently check data provided by seed producers but also to assist farmers in establishing refuge and buffer zones between GM and non-GM crops to delay resistance development in pests and prevent cross-pollination and contamination of GM crops, an agriculture expert said.
And it is because of this lack of capacity that the NBC approved in February, without any objection, trial tests of GM corn of gene numbers MIR163 and MON810, which are banned by China and European countries. On May 5, the French parliament banned the MON810 gene in corn, describing it as hazardous.
According to official documents, Pakistan is bound to adhere to international standards as a signatory to the Convention on Biodiversity and the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-Safety. However, there are no bio-safety laws and regulations at the federal and provincial levels to enforce these international commitments.
Experts believe that it is imperative for the NBC to function independently and have representation of stakeholders, environmentalists, NGOs and growers for feedback and social scientists for data analysis and monitoring of the impact of an approval on national biodiversity and socio-economic impact on farmers.
“It is also imperative that the NBC is equipped with state of the art laboratories and has trained staff to cross check bio-safety data of GM crops in the local environment and its impact on biodiversity,” an official of the Climate Change Division said.
Although, PARC Chairman Dr Iftikhar Ahmad disagreed that there was anything wrong with the composition of the NBC, he conceded that there were no environment and health science experts in it.
“The organisations are however in the best position to research and monitor GM crops before approving them for commercial purposes,” he said.