KARACHI: Research and commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) crops that included a commendable work of making an indigenous drought-resistant wheat variety has received a major blow with devolution of powers to provinces as there is absolute lack of official ownership of this important field and nobody knows whether it’s a federal subject or a provincial one.

The government apathy is highly condemnable given the fact over Rs2bn investment has already been made in this area. The absence of a regulatory mechanism on biotechnology has also delayed Rs200m biotech projects of Punjab Agriculture Board.

These concerns were raised at a press briefing held at Latif Ebrahim Jamal National Science Information Centre at Karachi University on Monday. The event was organised to launch the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) Brief 46, a report compiled on last year’s progress of biotech crops in the world.

According to the ISAAA report, a record 175.2 million hectares of biotech crops were grown globally in 2013; Bangladesh approved a biotech crop for planting for the first time; for the second consecutive year developing countries planted more biotech crops than industrial countries last year and Brazil continues to be the engine of biotech crop growth globally.

The speakers pointed out although Pakistan had the expertise and the infrastructure to develop the best indigenous genetically modified crops, efforts of its scientists were being seriously hampered due to absence of an official regulatory mechanism needed to be in place to ensure availability of certified GM seeds.

“We worked for eight years in collaboration with international agencies to develop basic rules and guidelines on bio-safety that were made part of the Pakistan Environment Act in 2005. Under the law, committees were set up to ensure standardisation in biotech research and to grant approval for GM seed commercialisation.

“But, the entire mechanism has been at a halt since devolution after abolition of ministry of environment that has been replaced by ministry of climate change. There is total chaos at the government level over how this area of science will go ahead,” explained Prof Kausar Abdullah Malik, noted biotechnologist currently serving at Forman Christian College University in Lahore.

Rejecting the arguments against GM crops, he said that this critique was politically motivated and had no scientific grounds. He questioned as to why people against GM crops didn’t raise their voice against the extensive use of pesticides in agriculture, which was a major threat to public health.

Replying to a question, Prof Malik said that cotton was more focused upon as a GM crop not only in Pakistan but also in other parts of the world because of multinational companies’ interests.

“However, cotton is not our basic issue and we need to produce crops like rice, wheat and sugar cane through biotechnology. Local scientists have produced a drought-resistant wheat variety but the project couldn’t be commercialised since currently the country has no body to grant approval in this regard,” he said.

Seconding his views, director of International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences of KU Prof Mohammad Iqbal Chaudhary said that today 27 countries were producing GM crops. The US, Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada, China, Paraguay and South Africa were ahead of Pakistan.

“The area with GM crops will only increase with time as this is the only solution to feed growing population and tackle challenges posed by increasing water shortages and urbanisation and steadily decline in cultivable land,” he said, adding that food security was an important component of national security and that could only be effectively addressed with the use of biotechnology.

Informing the audience about the rapid progress in GM cotton in Pakistan, he said that Bt cotton was formally introduced in Pakistan in 2009 and today 85pc of the cotton was being produced through the GM seed.

“Pakistan having an area of 2.8m hectares under cultivation of GM cotton (called Bt cotton) ranks 9th in the world in progress on biotech crops,” he said.

In his brief speech, chairman of Biotechnology Commission Pakistan Dr Anwar Nasim said that the delay in putting in place a regulatory body on biotech would encourage people to use non-certified seeds that could harm the environment.

Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2014